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Middle East

Deadly sightseeing - The minefields of ancient Palmyra

It will take a long time before the ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, recently liberated from the terrorist "Islamic State" (IS), can again be visited. It's far too dangerous, reports Juri Rescheto from Palmyra.

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A visit to Palmyra after its recapture

I am getting weak in the knees. Out of fear. I am standing before the beginnings of civilization. And to tell the truth, I am not that interested in what has been destroyed by IS or the robbers that took what they could of the architectural grave sculptures before them, or even that which has simply fallen apart over thousands of years of human history - the ruins are just too spectacular! They glow golden, standing in the bright light of the Syrian desert under clear blue skies. The city gate, the amphitheater, the world-famous columns from the first century AD - a world heritage site; once gain, peaceful and beautiful, now that IS has been driven out.

It is still, there is no wind, just the sound of clicking camera shutters from the journalists that I am traveling with. We speak with each other quietly. We are the first journalists to visit Palmyra, together with the Russian army, who has brought us here.

Syrien DW Reporter Juri Rescheto in Palmyra

The Russian army allowed DW's Juri Rescheto to visit Palmyra with a small group of journalists

Mines everywhere, even under the asphalt

But I also have weak knees because of the fear that there could be an explosion any time if one of us takes a step too far to the left or the right of the safe pathway. Palmyra is littered with landmines, and that makes visiting the ancient city extremely dangerous - life threatening, in fact.

In Germany I probably would have had to sign thousands of papers - "enter at your own risk" - the Russians seem a bit more relaxed on that count, nonetheless, they warn us: "I've been in five wars" says Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian defense department. "But I have never experienced anything like this. There are mines everywhere: on the walls, the ceilings, the floors, even under the ground, covered with rocks or asphalt."

Experts assure us that 80 percent of the ruins are in good shape, that is, that they are the same as they were before IS captured the ancient city. But that 80 percent could disappear in an instant if demolition experts make a false move. A dozen men in dark green overalls, helmets and protective goggles move around as if they are on the surface of Mars. Slowly, and with small, measured steps, they move forward with their equipment. They are Russian minesweepers, accompanied by a bomb-sniffing dog and a robot that moves autonomously. "It's not so easy with the dog," explains Lieutenant Alexei Makarenko, the unit leader. "The air is too hot, and the rise in temperature too sudden. The dog has come straight from the cold of Russia into the heat of the Syrian desert. People can get used to the change more quickly."

Very thankful museum director

Dr. Ahmad Deeb, the director of museum affairs for the city of Palmyra arrives at the site. He is a rotund man in his early sixties. He wears a cap and has a mustache. My first thought: he is alive. His colleague, Khaled Asaad, chief archeologist of the historic oasis city, is not. He was beheaded by the terror group IS in August. Khaled Asaad was calculatedly executed in a public space before the eyes of several spectators. A gruesome murder. The archeologist was not the only person killed here in the name of Islam.

Dr. Ahmad Deeb thanks the Russians and delivers a short, flowery speech. Without the Russian army this beautiful desert flower would never have blossomed again. The official is nervous. I can understand why.

Palmyra vor und nach ISIS

Palmyra - before and after 'IS'

Between trauma and hope

We leave the ancient city again three hours after arriving. "Our soldiers are not only fulfilling a military mission here, but also a cultural, one could even say, a humanitarian, mission," says Major General Konashenkov as we ride along towards the present-day city of Palmyra in an armored vehicle. "We are returning something to humanity that it created thousands of years ago" - it sounds a bit lofty, but it is true. The Russians are creating facts. And the fact is that Palmyra has been liberated.

But the people of modern Palmyra cannot make full use of this new freedom. As we arrive, some 200 people are gathering in the market square. They have exhausted looking faces, they have been traumatized from intimidation and torture by IS. Some are returning and realize that they no longer recognize their ravaged city. Others stayed, and were forced to look on as IS flattened entire neighborhoods. There are also many mines here.

Once Palmyra had 70,000 residents. Some 15,000 of them remained in the city after the one-year IS occupation. But is there any hope for them here? "We will only need three months to get all of our city services up and running again," assures the mayor. To his left a man climbs up a utility pole. Electricity is a top priority. "Once we have it, life will begin to flow here once again!" says a resident as he smiles at me. Inshallah! God willing!

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