A massive dust cloud engulfed the Russian army chopper as we touched down on the landing zone. The fine sand made it impossible to see as we walked away from the helicopter.
When it departed and the dust cleared, we could see several dozen Syrian government soldiers and Russian special forces, their faces covered by masks, holding their guns.
This was our welcome in Deir Ezzor, a former ISIS stronghold where the terror group besieged two Syrian government enclaves in the city’s west for more than three years until its ouster about two weeks ago.
The Russian army drove about 20 other journalists into town in an armored vehicle. Gun and mortar fire could be heard — ISIS still holds parts of the city — but in the center life was clearly coming back.
Some people were out shopping for basic goods. While relieved the ISIS siege had been lifted, they were still too afraid to give out their names, saying the terror group remained close.
“ISIS spread fear, cutting off heads, murdering people,” one man said. “It was not a question of faith, there was no faith. There is no Islam in these deeds. Never was Islam part of ISIS’ ideology.”
The government-held parts of the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, home to tens of thousands of people, survived for years on airdrops by the United Nations and the Syrian and Russian air forces.
Now the market was decently stocked, a line of people gathering outside a little store to buy groceries.
One shopkeeper praised Russia for helping Syrian government forces push ISIS out.
“Russia is a friend, a very, very, good friend,” he said, then added: “What Russia did for us is so great. Their efforts are too great to describe.”
Children were playing on the streets and giving victory signs to the Russian and Syrian soldiers who formed a heavy military presence in a town still partially under ISIS control.