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BEIRUT (Reuters) – Thousands of people are starting to return to formerly rebel-held east Aleppo despite freezing weather and destruction “beyond imagination”, a top U.N. official told Reuters from the Syrian city.

In the last couple of days around 2,200 families have returned to the Hanano housing district, said Sajjad Malik, country representative in Syria for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“People are coming out to east Aleppo to see their shops, their houses, to see if the building is standing and the house is not that looted … to see, should they come back,” he said in an interview.

But given the appalling conditions, the U.N. is not encouraging people to return.

“It is extremely, bitterly cold here,” said Malik. “The houses people are going back to have no windows or doors, no cooking facilities.”

Aid is vital to prevent more deaths. The U.N. is helping people to restart their lives in one room of their apartments to start with, he said, giving them mats, sleeping bags and plastic sheets to cover blown-out windows.

BREAD AND WATER

Hanano was one of the first Aleppo neighborhoods to fall to rebels in 2012, and the first to be retaken by the Syrian government on its way to seizing back full control of the northern city last month – the biggest victory for President Bashar al-Assad in nearly six years of war.

As government forces rapidly advanced, some residents stayed put, tens of thousands fled of their own accord and around 35,000 fighters and civilians were evacuated in late December in convoys organized by the Syrian government.

After months of fierce Syrian and Russian air strikes, reconstruction will take a long time, Malik said, but the immediate priority is to keep people warm and fed. U.N.-supported partners provide hot meals twice a day to 21,000 people, and 40,000 people get baked bread every day.

Over 1.1 million people once again have access to clean water in bottles or through tankers and wells.

Mobile clinics are up and running, and more than 10,000 children have received polio vaccinations. Thousands of children who have not been able to attend school need reintegrating into the education system through remedial classes to rebuild their confidence, Malik said.

There was no register of births, deaths and marriages in the rebel-held sector, so the U.N. is working with the government to issue people with papers. “I met a woman with five children and she was excited that she now has her kids registered as Syrians. She has ID cards and a family book,” he said.

Bombing has destroyed hospitals, schools, roads and houses, and damaged the two main water pumping stations. The experienced U.N. official said the level of destruction surpassed anything he had seen in conflict zones like Afghanistan and Somalia.

“Nothing would have prepared us to see the scale of destruction there, it’s beyond imagination.”

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

IMAGE: Samah, 11, and her brother, Ibrahim, transport their salvaged belongings from their damaged house in Doudyan village in northern Aleppo Governorate, Syria, January 2, 2017. Picture taken January 2, 2017. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

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