Not much has changed for Emad Midleq and his family of eight since the Islamic State terror group was driven out of their hometown of Deir el-Zour in November.
The Syrian government forces in control of eastern Syria's largest city claim life is returning to normal, but Midleq and his family say the reality on the ground is otherwise. They say a sectarian war is in taking shape in their city.
"A sectarian retribution is taking place there. It is a sectarian cleansing against the Sunni population," said Midleq, 46.
The Sunni father of six looked drawn and exhausted as he described his family's living conditions and those of the thousands of other displaced residents now living in the Areesh refugee camp near al-Shaddadi, about 85 kilometers (53 miles) northeast of Deir el-Zour.
Midleq, along with his wife, children and his 71-year-old disabled father, left Deir el-Zour as intense clashes erupted between the Syrian army and rebel forces in 2013. Most of the city came under the control of IS fighters in mid-2014.
An estimated 210,000 people lived in the city before the Syrian civil war began in 2011, in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Years of conflict forced tens of thousands out and damaged most of the city's infrastructure.
According to a World Bank report released in July, Deir el-Zour was among the most damaged cities in Syria. It is estimated that 36 percent of residential buildings in the city have been destroyed or damaged, while damage to structures in industrial areas is as high as 54 percent.
Describing his plight, Midleq told VOA that he was forced to relocate his family over a dozen times in search of shelter in northern Syria. Living sometimes in abandoned, badly damaged buildings and plastic tents, he said destitution and diseases have threatened his family no less than the brutal war.
"Over the last five years, we have witnessed things that no one can imagine. The human brain cannot process what we have endured," Midleq said.
He said he was relieved to know that IS was declared defeated in Deir el-Zour in early November, but deeply distressed about Shiite militants' dominance in his hometown.
"Militias close to Iran and [Lebanese] Hezbollah are systematically killing and arresting Sunni civilians," Midleq said. "They consider us supporters of IS."
The Syrian government claims it is doing its best to bring people back. It says its efforts to restore life to the city are already paying off as more and more people return, particularly to the enclave that remained under government control throughout the period in which IS ruled the rest of the city.
Earlier this month, the regime announced the allocation of about $4 million for the city's reconstruction, which it said would take place over four years. The government has also issued a decree urging public sector employees to return to their jobs by the end of the year.
Syrian state television reported earlier this month that landlines and cellphone networks have also been restored after many years.
But Midleq said his relatives who risked their lives to return to Deir el-Zour have a different story to tell. He said looting has become the norm in the city, and many houses belonging to Sunni residents have been given to people deemed loyal to the government of Bashar al-Assad.
"They will tell you, 'Come back and let's have a national reconciliation.' But when you go back to Deir el-Zour, they will accuse you of supporting IS and having no patriotism for the nation," he said.
Midleq added most displaced residents are also afraid their sons will be conscripted into the government forces to fight the rebels. He said the government has told those who returned that anyone under age 45 needed to sign up for the military service.
The government is reportedly using some Sunni tribal figures to recruit people.
"We are farmers and have no interest in fighting," Midleq said. "As if what we have endured from killing and airstrikes is not enough."
The memories of Deir el-Zour battles and airstrikes are also haunting others in the family. Midleq said the health of his disabled father, Abu Emad, has dramatically deteriorated, while his wife, Khalida, is suffering from sleep deprivation.
"The thought of planes never leaves my mind," said Khalida as she tended to her 1-year-old son. "Sometimes when I'm sitting, I feel like I can hear planes flying over the tent. Planes slaughtered us."
Best friends killed
The two older children in the family, daughter Rawan, 18, and son Qusay, 12, have similar recollections of the airstrikes.
"My best friends, Amar and Osama, were both killed by airstrikes," Qusay said.
But despite the terrifying experience of the past, what comes next, particularly for the children, is what is most concerning to the family.
Neither Rawan nor Qusay has been able to go to school since they left Deir el-Zour five years ago. Rawan was forced to quit school when she was in the seventh grade, while Qusay finished only first grade.
"I started going back to school in Hasakah, but the situation prevented me from continuing. I was supposed to get ready for college by now," Rawan said while expressing her eagerness to resume her studying, despite the delay.
As for their mother, Khalida, all she wants is a place the family can call home.
"It doesn't matter where we move to as long as it's a place we can settle in and I see my children go to school," she said as tears started pouring down her face. "My son Qusay was supposed to be in the seventh grade by now, but he can't even write his name. All I can do is cry for him."