Aleppo: Among the destroyed buildings of Syria’s Aleppo, a battered sign between two army checkpoints welcomes visitors to an area earmarked to become a beacon of post-war reconstruction.
“The industrial city of Aleppo thanks you for your visit,” it reads.
Once the country’s powerhouse, Aleppo was devastated by Syria’s ongoing civil war before Russia-backed government forces expelled the last rebels in late 2016 after a devastating siege.
As some of the city is slowly rebuilt, the Russian army this week showed reporters around, as Moscow seeks to highlight its role in reconstruction of the war-torn country.
Several factories have reopened in the almost three years since the fighting ended in Aleppo, large parts of which were flattened.
At Katerji Engineering and Mechanical Industries, 1,000 people are employed in metalworking jobs. About a fifth of the workers recently returned to Aleppo.
“We started work again a year ago and today we have four operational warehouses,” said Salah Mitar, the engineer in charge.
“We hope to expand to 11 by 2020,” he told AFP, as employees bustled around him in one huge warehouse.
But Mitar said international sanctions against President Bashar al-Assad’s government and associated businessmen meant the factory cannot import sophisticated machinery.
The two main shareholders of Katerji Engineering and Mechanical Industries - Hussam and Baraa Katerji - are targeted by European Union and US sanctions respectively.
The factory was under rebel control until Aleppo’s recapture and production ground to a halt during fighting.
For the past eight months since the factory re-opened, employee Khaled said he had received a good salary.
But “very high prices in town” still make life difficult for him and his family, said the 38-year-old father of five.
After fuel shortages the government blames on sanctions, the value of the Syrian pound fell to its lowest level ever on the black market earlier this month.
‘Customers will return’
Aleppo’s UNESCO-listed historic centre and its centuries-old covered markets are also returning to life.
The frontline once ran through the old souqs, but today large parts of the historical trading centre have been restored.
Workers still shovel rubble in some alleys, as coffee shops and stalls - most still empty - prepare to receive merchandise.
Among them, 59-year-old Abdel Rahman Mahmud could not wait to see shoppers back in his two-decade-old shop, where he will resume selling soap and spice.
“Customers will return. I’m sure of it. We just need to wait a bit,” said the trader, who lost a son in the war.
The civil war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the repression of anti-government protests.
But, Mahmud said, “our lives have changed a lot these past few years. Things are a lot better - we have electricity, water.”
Russian pipes and cables
President Bashar al-Assad’s government has won back large parts of the country from rebels since Russia intervened militarily on its side in 2015.
After blistering military campaigns and Russia-brokered surrender deals, Damascus now controls more than 60 percent of Syria and is looking to rebuild with Russian support.
Moscow says it has delivered thousands of tonnes of water pipe and hundreds of kilometres (miles) of high-tension cable to improve water and power supplies.
Its military police on the ground have deterred looters, Russia says.
Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, a longtime Kremlin protege with vast resources, has offered to fund the restoration of Aleppo’s centuries-old Umayyad Mosque after it was damaged in the fighting.
But in the east of the city, residential neighbourhoods once under rebel control still largely lie in ruin.
Flattened apartment blocks lie on either side of deserted streets, dotted only by army checkpoints.
And just 10 kilometres away, fighting has continued.
The city lies east of the jihadist-run region of Idlib, where a Russia-announced ceasefire has largely held in recent weeks, despite sporadic bombardment.
The governor of Aleppo province, Hussein Diab, said fighting wounded 123 people in the province in September.