Aleppo Christians prepare for Christmas
ALEPPO - Inside Aleppo's crumbling Saint Elias Cathedral, Nehme Badawi and his brother Bashir rummage through the snow-covered rubble for wood and scrap metal to make a crude Nativity scene for Christmas.
The roof of the famed church in Aleppo's Old City had collapsed years ago under a salvo of rocket fire, and bright white flakes floated down and rested on the destruction inside.
"We're using whatever debris we can find to symbolise the triumph of life over death," says 53-year-old Nehme, as he gathered broken tree branches to decorate the scene.
After more than four years of fierce fighting, the guns have fallen silent in Syria's second city just a few days before Christmas.
The army announced on Thursday that it had fully recaptured Aleppo, putting an end to the violence that transformed the city from a hub of culture and history into a worldwide symbol of destruction.
Aleppo's small Catholic minority has wasted no time in trying to bring life back to the ruins of Saint Elias, preparing the church for its first Christmas mass in five years.
Along with his brother and a group of boy scouts, Bashir is surrounded by overturned church pews, pieces of corrugated metal and scraps of wood strewn across the floor.
"The emotional impact is much bigger and deeper than the material loss," he says.
- From destruction to celebration -
"All our memories are here -- this is where we celebrated all our feast days, our joys," Bashir says.
"We want to transform all this destruction into something beautiful."
The church's snow-covered front yard -- typically lit in bright colours in preparation for the holidays -- stands as a testament to some of the worst violence of Syria's war.
Nearby buildings are blackened by fires and the cathedral's own entrance, flanked by two massive clock towers, bore the markings of rocket fire.
When rebels first overran Aleppo's east in mid-2012, the famed old quarter became one of the city's most notorious front lines.
Fighting destroyed the 11th-century minaret of Aleppo's famed Ummayad mosque and heavily damaged its citadel.
It also forced most of Aleppo's Christians, which made up 10 percent of the pre-war population, to flee.
There are only about 100,000 Christians left in Aleppo out of the 250,000 before the war, according to demographic expert Fabrice Balanche.
Almost all of them stayed in the government-held part of the city.
"We came back to the church three days ago, as soon as we found out that the military operations were nearing their end," Bashir says.
He and the young boy scouts carefully set up figures for the nativity scene -- the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph the carpenter are positioned next to a cow and a lamb, facing the wise men and a shepherd.
- 'Broke our hearts' -
An angel has been precariously fixed to the roof of the makeshift shed with some rope.
The red, green, and gold decorations appeared particularly bright amid the dull tones of destruction.
"I'm 24 years old, and I spent 20 years of my life here. We came every day, but we were deprived of our church these past four years," says scout Tony Mardini, as he blows into his hands to keep them warm.
"During the war years, as soon as we heard rocket fire or an explosion, we came to check on the church and we'd see the damage get worse," he says.
"We were sad -- it broke our hearts."
He and fellow scouts have mobilised quickly in recent days, using Facebook and Whatsapp to invite relatives and friends to Sunday's Christmas service.
As he discusses his plans for his first Christmas in Saint Elias in five years, Mardini breaks out into a smile.
"It's among these ruins that we will have our reunion," he says.