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Alice Fordham

In the heart of Beirut, architect Mona El Hallak herds a group of students together outside a monumental mansion — a vast, elegant building whose yellow walls and graceful pillars are ravaged by thousands of bullet holes.

"We are," she shouts over the cacophonous traffic, "at the intersection of Damascus Road and Independence Avenue."

In a pink-painted village clinic converted into a field hospital a few miles from the Mosul front lines, there is no emergency care facility, so wounded Iraqi troops are just wheeled into the foyer for treatment.

Over the crackle of walkie-talkies, one of two men arriving with shrapnel wounds from a car bomb calls out, "Mohammad Jassim, my brother, where is he?"

A quickening flow of civilians is leaving the city of Mosul, fleeing fighting between Iraqi security forces and the ISIS militants who have held the city for more than two years.

A total of 28,400 people have run away since an offensive to retake the densely populated western half of the city began Feb. 19, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

There are a lot of children playing outside in eastern Mosul. They run around the front yards of their houses, chasing each other through the alleyways, as their parents sit on plastic chairs keeping — at most — half an eye on them.

At the al-Kufa boys' school, Mustafa Salem, 13, says this freedom is new. During the 2 1/2 years that ISIS controlled his neighborhood, he was rarely allowed to leave the house.

"It wasn't good, there was no school, nothing," he said.

The tribal delegation visiting Sheikh Abdelraouf al-Dhahab was still talking in the very early hours of the morning last Sunday when his nephew, Abdullah, noticed strangers approaching on foot across the rocky, inhospitable terrain of central Yemen.

"Who are you?" Abdullah called out into the night. "Who are you?"

The men shot him dead.

Startled by the gunfire, the Dhahab family scrambled to take up its own weapons and defend its house.

When I meet Nineb Lamassu at England's Cambridge University, where he's a researcher, he transports us to his Middle Eastern homeland by opening his computer and playing me a recording of a man reciting a poem.

Somewhere between speech and song, the voice is old, a little gruff, rising and falling rhythmically. Even in Aramaic — I don't speak a word of Aramaic — the effect is hypnotic.

The delight that architect Marwa al-Sabouni takes in the Old City of Homs is luminous and contagious.

We're walking round the historic area at the heart of the central Syrian city, north of Damascus, which was for two years a bastion of rebel fighters, besieged by the government. And at first, all I can see is destruction. Some buildings are pancaked by airstrikes, others have shell holes ripped in the sides. Almost all are sprayed with bullet holes.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

You can tell the coastal city of Tartus is on the side of the Syrian government because everything here is intact.

Little waves lap at rocks on a wide, quiet seafront dotted with cafes; boats ferry people back and forth to a nearby island. There are parks with manicured hibiscus shrubs covered in pale pink blossoms, and busy markets.

In central Damascus, it's perfectly clear that President Bashar Assad is firmly in control. In the souks of the Old City, his face looks out of almost every shop window, pinned up next to gold jewelry or intricate rugs. No one has a bad word to say about him, at least not to a Western journalist.

In rebel enclaves nearby, forces loyal to Assad are creeping back into control. After years of siege tactics, opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus are increasingly making deals that see their fighters heading into rebel-held areas.

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