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.
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.”
‘Russia is a friend’
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.