Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that rebel-held areas of Homs had been under fire for four years. Fighting in the city began just over three years ago.

Those who could salvage nothing substantial picked up tokens of their past lives: a bunch of red plastic roses, a piece of crystal chandelier, a few dust-clogged books. It was the first time displaced residents of this central Syrian city had laid eyes on their homes in more than two years, and for many, little was left.

Block after block of Homs lies devastated, after war pulled the heart from this Syrian city that the opposition once proudly called “the capital of the revolution.” A deal last week with the government, which granted rebel fighters a safe exit from their last pockets of control, is allowing people who had fled the chance to return and survey the damage.

The city’s old clock tower, once the scene of mass protests against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, is now the gatepost to the bombarded Old City and other parts of Homs. On Wednesday, the Syrian flag is expected to be raised above it, in a government ceremony that will be a bitter blow to the rebels who fought here.

The return of central Homs to government hands has put Assad in a position of confidence as he prepares for a presidential election, which has been dismissed by the United States and others as a sham. His certain win of a third seven-year term will further distance the possibility of any talks on political transition. And although the government has seen setbacks elsewhere, the fall of Homs is a major step in its attempt to secure central Syria.

But Homs is a broken prize.

The Post's Loveday Morris, who traveled to Syria, reports on the destruction, displacement and clean-up efforts in the central city of Homs. The rebels withdrew from the city last week, but civilians are continuing to repopulate the area. (Loveday Morris, Sarah Parnass, Ashleigh Joplin, Jacques Ledbetter/The Washington Post)

Three years of airstrikes and artillery, mortar and rocket fire have pummeled formerly ­rebel-held areas of the city to a state beyond recognition. So much so that on Monday, Hussein Ali, 21, could not find his family shop in the al-Qusoor neighborhood, one of those hit hardest. He hunched at the end of a bombed-out street.

“It’s too painful for words,” he said.

The obliterated streets have been a hive of activity since residents were first allowed to return over the weekend, after the last rebels were bused out.

Families hired trucks and crammed them full of their remaining belongings. They fumbled with keys in stiffened locks that had not been opened for two years. They braced themselves for what they would find.

For some, it was better than expected.

“We thought we’d find the place flattened to the ground,” said Abu Musab, a 44-year-old resident of the neighborhood of Jurat al-Shayyah, who left Homs 2½ years ago.

It was hard to see his cause for optimism as he stood under two gaping holes in his ceiling. But he proclaimed himself “happy to find that it’s not just rubble that we have to pitch a tent on.”

Driven by hunger

The government is holding up the evacuation deal here as a shining example of its “reconciliation” program to end the conflict, now in its fourth year.

It took two years of siege tactics to wear down the Homs opposition fighters to this point. Cut off from the outside world, the rebels were corralled into an ever-smaller patch of land.

Today, Syrian flags hang over bombed buildings. “Now the sun of freedom” rises, says one sign erected by the government. Beneath those signs, rebel graffiti is still visible. “We are strong,” reads a message by the Liwa al-Haqq rebel group. Another message threatens informers. Plastered on buildings are fliers from November calling on opposition groups to muster fighters for a siege-breaking attempt that would never succeed.

In February, as their morale flagged, hundreds of rebels took the opportunity to leave the besieged areas of Homs under a United Nations-sponsored truce.

Khalid Terkawi, 26, was one of them. He surrendered at a government clearing center in a school in central Homs, where he and other fighters are being held until authorities determine whether they are eligible to be freed.

Like many others, Terkawi was driven from the rebellion by hunger. He said he became disillusioned with rebel leaders who hoarded food. More than 1,000 opposition fighters have handed over their weapons at the school, according to the center’s director, Ammar Hishma.

Those who skipped military service or defected from the army face a longer clearing process. Some are preparing themselves to fight for the government that was not long ago their enemy, because they are required to serve their mandatory conscription.

“We were so depressed by the end,” said Hassan Hassoun, 21, who fought in the Asedik Brigade until he surrendered 15 days ago. “We lost hope. We came to the edge of death. We didn’t care anymore.”

Those who didn’t turn themselves in — a total of about 1,930 people, according to Homs governor Talal al-Barazai — were allowed last week to go with their weapons to rebel-held territory north of Homs.

Reconciliation efforts are underway there and in the rebel-held town of Rastan, Barazai said, adding that the government on Tuesday began releasing 104 prisoners as a confidence-building gesture.

‘How did we get to this?’

The Rev. Ziad Hilal, a Jesuit priest, rode buses with the opposition fighters as they left the ruined remains of the Old City. Rebel leaders had asked prominent religious figures to join them on the trip to ensure their safety.

“It was Homsi people leaving their area, and feeling the pain of that, but it was also Homsi people waiting to come back in,” he said. “The same people, all Homsi. How did we get to this?”

As he spoke, he was seated next to the grave of the Rev. Frans van der Lugt, a Dutch priest who made Syria his home and refused to leave the besieged areas of the Old City, only to be assassinated just weeks before the evacuation deal.

The Old City had been home to 80,000 Christians, but by the end of the siege, there were just 23. As they returned Monday, many of them were overcome with emotion.

“Let us live with dictators,” said the Rev. Michael Rabaheih, from the Greek Orthodox church in the neighborhood of Hamadiya, little of which is left standing. “If this is freedom, we don’t need it.”

Not far away, the iconic Khalid ibn al-Walid mosque is gravely damaged. The ceiling has caved in over the domed mausoleum, a pilgrimage site for Sunni Muslims. Shiite slogans were spray-painted on the walls during the fighting, an act that has exacerbated sectarian divides.

In the destroyed heart of the city, it was too early to talk of reconstruction plans. But as they picked through what was left of their belongings, families vowed to rebuild their lives there — if they are allowed to return for good. They greeted old neighbors, the atmosphere thick with emotion.

“Even if they gave me a palace in Damascus, I’d still come back here,” said Abu Musab, the Jurat al-Shayyah resident. “When you leave your place, you lose something of yourself. When you come home, you know who you are.”