ALEPPO, Syria — Aleppo’s largest square was packed with people of all ages: young men performing a folk dance, children playing, others buying ice cream, popcorn, peanuts and salted pumpkin seeds. A giant sign spelled out in colorful English letters, “I love Aleppo.”

The scene in Saadallah al-Jabiri Square on a recent day was very different from what it was during nearly four years of war that wrecked Syria’s largest city: Rebel sniper fire and shelling – and a triple car bombing that killed dozens – had made it a no-go zone. For years, the square stood near the front line dividing the government-held western half of Aleppo from the rebel-held eastern half.

Thirteen months after government forces captured the east and crushed the rebels, improvements are coming to Aleppo – but only slowly.

EASTERN PART OF CITY IN RUINS

The devastation of Aleppo was so great, the civilian flight was so big and the political division was so deep that residents find it difficult to imagine it could ever return to what it was.

Eastern Aleppo remains in ruins. Its streets have been cleared of rubble but there’s been little rebuilding of the blocks of destroyed or badly damaged buildings. Though some residents have trickled back, hundreds of thousands still have not.

After the victory by the forces of President Bashar Assad, there’s also little sign of attempts at reconciliation or talk of how part of the city tried to bring down his rule.

“I feel very sad, I cry. Sometimes I cry in the morning because this was a very good neighborhood,” said Adnan Sabbagh, standing on a balcony in his building in the once-rebel-held eastern district of Sukkari.

The 47-year-old construction worker fled to the coastal town of Jableh five years ago as soon as the rebels overran eastern Aleppo.

STILL WITHOUT ELECTRICITY

Last autumn, he returned home and fixed up his apartment on the second floor where he now lives with his wife and youngest son, Hamza. He relies on generators set up in the neighborhood because like most other parts of eastern Aleppo, there’s no electricity in Sukkari – the government is still working to reinstall utility poles. But running water has been restored – although it’s available only every other day, as is the case throughout the city as a whole.

With a prewar population of 2.3 million, Aleppo not only was Syria’s largest city but also its commercial center. More than that, it had a culture all of its own within Syria. Aleppans take enormous pride in their own accent of Syrian Arabic and their city’s famed cuisine of roast meats and mezze appetizers. Its history spans millennia, and tourists were drawn by its historic citadel, Ummayad Mosque and covered bazaar.

In western Aleppo, where damage was lighter, there’s a feeling of liberation from life under warfare. Power comes several hours a day. Sand berms that were set up on many streets have been removed, and security checkpoints have been pulled from the heart of the city to its entrances, freeing traffic.

Im el-Nour, a 51-year-old woman who drives a taxi has seen a boost in work. She can now operate in the east, where conservative women call her for their errands to avoid riding with a male driver. She also works as a DJ at women-only parties or weddings, which have become more frequent.

Between her two jobs, el-Nour – who is divorced and whose son was killed while fighting in Assad’s army – makes more than $100 a month, a bit more than a typical civil servant.

“Aleppo will again become the jewel of the Middle East,” she said.

At Saadallah al-Jabiri Square, Mustafa Khodor churned out popcorn. “The liberation of Aleppo was a turning point for us in this city. People now feel safe and go out,” said the father of five.

Nearby, Abdullatif Maslawi, a 21-year-old law student, performed a traditional dance known as dabke with a group of his friends.

“Aleppo is my soul,” he said. “Aleppo was wounded and now it is being cured.”