Taline Menassian still trembles when she steps into the Aleppo Armenian Society’s open-air cafe, shaken by memories of the rockets that once rained down on the Syrian city’s front line.
The eatery in Midan, Aleppo’s main Armenian district, was shuttered for four years after violence reached the city in 2012.
But it reopened in June, six months after the government recaptured all of the city.
Relaxed laughter and giggling children have replaced the boom of explosions in the restaurant, nestled between the Armenian Society and the St. Gregory Armenian Apostolic church.
“It’s like a dream to be here,” said Menassian, 50, looking around at the dozens of customers in the restaurant.
Menassian is a member of the Armenian Society, which kept its doors open although the affiliated eatery was boarded up.
“Every time I come in, I can’t believe it,” she told AFP, gazing in amazement at dozens of customers smoking water pipes and sipping arak, the Levant’s popular aniseed spirit.
The cafe opened in 2007, and quickly became a favoured haunt for residents of Midan because of its family atmosphere and leafy terrace, where plastic chairs and tables are illuminated by hanging lanterns.
“We told ourselves that if this cafe reopened, the people would come back,” said Menassian, whose red hair is cut into a bob.
“We’re all one family here,” she said emotionally.
Second city Aleppo was home to the largest contingent of Syria’s Armenian community: 150,000 out of 350,000 across the country, according to Syria specialist and geographer Fabrice Balanche.
Now, no more than 10,000 are left in Aleppo, after thousands fled to Armenia, neighbouring Lebanon or even further afield to the United States, Canada, and Europe.
– ‘Beautiful days are back’ –
Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 but struck Aleppo the following year, when rebels overran much of the eastern parts of city.
Army troops dropped barrel bombs and launched air strikes across the front line on rebel groups, who fired rockets back in return.
Midan was caught in the middle.
The neighbourhood remained in government hands but was regularly pummelled by missiles from the neighbouring opposition-held district of Bustan al-Basha.
“I still remember the day that about 40 rockets hit this very spot,” Menassian recalled.
“Midan was almost deserted. Many families left,” she said, including her daughter, who fled to the Armenian capital Yerevan where her son-in-law worked as a jeweller.
Menassian’s family home was also destroyed in the fighting, which halted in December, when Syria’s army announced it was in full control of the city.
Now, Menassian’s husband is re-opening his tyre shop in Midan, and their daughter and son-in-law are moving back to Syria, too.
But so far, just a handful of families and businesses have returned to the neighbourhood, though residents see the cafe’s reopening as a positive sign.
“It’s the return of the beautiful days,” said Haroutioun Kahvedjian, a 57-year-old dentist.
Although his family fled to neighbouring Lebanon, he decided to stay in Aleppo and continued to frequent the Society.
During some of the city’s bloodiest days, he even treated wounded people inside the Armenian community centre’s halls.
Now he is hoping his family will return.
“I sent a picture of the cafe to my daughter to encourage her to come back,” he said with teary eyes.
“The cafe is the symbol of our resistance in Aleppo.”
– ‘Indescribable joy’ –
Other historic districts of the city are seeing a revival, too.
The celebrated citadel, a jewel of medieval architecture, was heavily damaged by a massive blast in July 2015 and remains a military position.
But a small coffeehouse that has spent decades at the foot of the fortress re-opened last week for the first time since 2012.
“When I used to see the pictures of the citadel on television, I had tears in my eyes,” said owner Bashir Azmouz, standing opposite buildings in ruins.
“Today, my joy is indescribable,” he told AFP.
Children frolicked nearby in the Saadallah al-Jabriri square, once a favourite gathering place for families but now another victim of Syria’s violence.
Its historic fountains once gushed streams of water, but they are all dry now.
Electricity was restored to the area where the square is located just a week ago, drawing residents back again.
“No one dared step into the square during the war,” said Mohammad Daouk, 37, who was visiting with his family.
“This place was a symbol. All Aleppans used to come here.”