01:58 - Source: CNN
ISIS heartland: Inside Deir Ezzor

Story highlights

Residents relieved after ISIS siege of two government-held enclaves lifted in Deir Ezzor

But the terror group remains nearby, still holding parts of the eastern Syrian city

Deir Ezzor, Syria CNN —  

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.

A Russian combat helicopter flies over Deir Ezzor, where there has been intense fighting against ISIS.

The Russian army drove the CNN crew and 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 market in central Deir Ezzor is busy and well-stocked with goods again after ISIS' ouster.

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.

‘Russia is a friend’

Now the market was decently stocked, a line of people gathering outside a little store to buy groceries.

People line up outside a small store in central Deir Ezzor.

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.

Children salute Russian and Syrian soldiers in Deir Ezzor after they helped push ISIS fighters out.

‘The siege was horrible’

Most of the buildings in the city center around the market seemed intact, even after the heavy fighting and the siege.

But on the outskirts many buildings were flattened, and tanks and armored personnel carriers could be seen heading to the front.

A soldier patrols on a street in Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria.

The Russian military took us to City Hall. Electricity came from a generator, and there were only dim lights in the mayor’s office.

Mayor Mohammed Ibrahim Samra described the ordeal the city had been through.

“ISIS tried many times to enter into this part of Deir Ezzor. We always stopped them, but many died defending the city and the siege was horrible,” he said.

He vowed to rebuild Deir Ezzor once ISIS is totally ousted from the city and its outskirts.

ISIS remains close by

But for now the terror group’s proximity remains clear in most government-held parts of the city.

Gunfire rang out nearby as we visited a hospital, whose staff confirmed ISIS positions were nearby.

Gunfire can be heard from ISIS positions close to this hospital in Deir Ezzor.

In one ward, young men, mostly Syrian soldiers, were recovering from wounds they said they sustained while fighting ISIS.

“We entered a village. It was eight of us,” said a man with a large cast on his left arm, clearly in pain. “There was a car that we picked up, but then ISIS saw us.”

He said he and his men killed the ISIS fighters in the battle that wounded him.

Russian military helicopters race across the eastern Syrian desert toward Deir Ezzor.

While the government-held areas of Deir Ezzor are breathing a sigh of relief, the Russian military acknowledges that tough battles lie ahead. However, the Russians believe defeating ISIS here will go a long way to ousting the group from southeastern Syria.

After three years under siege, the people in this hot and dusty town appear simply happy to have access to basic goods and be free from worry about ISIS invading their home.