BEIRUT (AP) — A journey that before the war in Syria was just a 15-minute drive from Damascus now took well over an hour, clambering over giant ramparts of dirt and rubble. Visiting his house in the town of Harasta for the first time in six years, Danny Makki couldn’t recognize it.

“I didn’t even know it was my street till I recognized the supermarket opposite the house … no placards, no signs, just destruction,” he said.

The visit this week by Makki, a British-born Syrian journalist, provided a first look into the devastation wreaked in Harasta, where opposition fighters surrendered after a ferocious, Russian-backed air and ground offensive by government forces aiming to retake the region of eastern Ghouta on the edge of the Syrian capital.

The rebels agreed to lay down their arms in return for safe passage to opposition-held northwestern Syria. As thousands of fighters were bused out, Harasta’s civilians have been transported to government centers in and around Damascus, leaving the town, once home to a population of around 35,000, an empty, shattered husk.

Harasta, on Damascus’ northeastern edge, was among the first to rise up against President Bashar Assad’s rule in 2011 and soon fell into the hands of the armed opposition along with other towns of eastern Ghouta. For six years, the army has been trying to uproot the rebels in grueling warfare with no decisive victory, until the assault that began last month. Harasta was declared officially under Syrian army control on Friday.

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