Nightmares of “reconstruction” in and around Damascus: Part I

Translator: 

Al-Jumhuriya travels to Zabadani, west of Damascus, where fears abound regarding reconstruction plans envisaged by the regime.

[Editor’s note: The following is the first in a two-part report from Damascus and its surrounding province, originally published in Arabic on 3 November, 2017. The second part may be read here.]

ZABADANI, Damascus Province - What is it that Syrians await today? Or, what is it that awaits them? All, without exception, are anticipating the end of the war sooner or later, whether by military or political means. Yet what comes afterward?

In the last few months, the most alluring discussion in the media, and among economists, and businesspeople, and organizations of all kinds and orientations, Syrian or Arab or Western, has been Syria’s reconstruction. Never-ending analyses, calculations and numbers and visions and plans and technical terms preoccupy the minds of many, and deals are already coming to light in regional and Western nations for whom the end of the Syrian war represents an inexhaustible investment opportunity.

The story, however, is not only about reconstruction, but also the fear that accompanies it, and that lies in waiting to ambush thousands of Syrian families after the war’s conclusion. A great and inexorable transformation is coming, but what next? Many people I know, who were driven from their homes, and forced to flee to refuge, eastward or westward, are wondering: Will we return? To where are we supposed to return? Who will safeguard our rights, and those of our children, in our homes and on our land? Are the same states and actors that contributed to our death and displacement, headed by the Syrian regime, today going to enter through another door to convince us they want us to return to the neighborhoods that were pulverized by the war?

Dozens of questions are being asked today. Some of those asking them hope for an imminent end to the tragedy. Others have stopped waiting, being certain they’ll be fully marginalized in peace, just as they were in war.

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For stretches of many kilometers, it’s difficult for the visitor to the plain of Zabadani, west of Damascus, to see anything except the colors yellow and black dominating agricultural lands scorched in their entirety; lands which were once among the richest in all of Syria for the growing of fruit, especially apples, peaches, and figs.

As for inside Zabadani city, not one house has been spared the effects of the regime’s bombardment that persisted from 2012, when the Free Syrian Army first gained control of several towns in the Zabadani plain, until April 2017, when the remaining fighters and families in the city left for the north of the country under the so-called ‘four towns’ deal, whereby the residents of Zabadani and neighboring Madaya were removed in parallel with the removal of civilians and injured from the two besieged towns of Fuaa and Kefraya in Idlib Province.

Within a few weeks of the deal’s implementation, the regime began expounding on the priority of Zabadani’s reconstruction, to which billions of Syrian pounds were allocated, including 450 million (c. $875,000) to remove the rubble, 70 million (c. $135,000) to rehabilitate the clinic, and 1.5 billion (c. $2.9 million) to restore service institutions. At the same time, the regime allowed Zabadani’s locals to return, if they wished, to look for and inspect their houses, later also allowing visitors to come and see for themselves what the “hands of terror” did to this Damascene summer retreat, with banners awaiting them bearing such messages as “The people of Zabadani welcome their esteemed guests” and “The people of Zabadani salute the Syrian Arab Army,” without specifying whom among “the people” went to the trouble of printing and installing these banners with such hospitality and generosity, while they have no shelter in which to take refuge from the destruction of every dwelling, in part or in whole.

This destruction did not prevent dozens of families from returning at least once. Among them are those who found their homes and despaired of the possibility of repairing them, and so rented other places elsewhere. Others tried to remove certain necessities that had survived the looting at the regime’s hands, while others still preferred to repair whatever they could, that they might be rid of the strain of renting. These last were mostly residents of the fringes, which were spared the lion’s share of the bombings and air raids.

As for Marwan, he preferred to return to his house and shop in the heart of Zabadani city—or, as locals call it, Zabadani al-Balad. Narrow alleys branch out of numerous streets, through which it’s almost impossible to move due to the horror of the devastation. Whole houses are incinerated, without the slightest possibility of being lived in, while a great many large piles of stones remain liable to fall down at any moment.

No sooner had Marwan learned of the possibility of returning to Zabadani than he made up his mind to reopen his falafel shop in Zabadani al-Balad. He brushed the rubble off the sides of the shop, and acquired a small pan with the basic prerequisites sufficient to make sandwiches of falafel, tomato, parsley, and yoghurt, for which he charges 200 Syrian pounds (c. $0.40).

Any visitor can stop at Marwan’s shop and have a falafel, which in most cases is cold, for the customer footfall hardly justifies operating the heating except in the mornings when frying the falafel. But it might be better not to ask the sexagenarian man what happened to his nearby house, when he might start weeping while speaking about his yearning to return and live therein, which is all but impossible in light of the scale of destruction in the area.

“Starting several weeks ago, I’ve been coming here every day to sell falafel to whomever is able to pass by,” he tells Al-Jumhuriya. “When I finish with that, I head to my house to stay there for a while, even if it means sitting on the ground or on an old cushion. The important thing is that I know my house exists, and the even more important thing is that my children know this is their house, and the house of their father and grandparents, before we’re washed away by the wave of reconstruction, in which we don’t know how our rights will be protected.”

The farmers of Zabadani plain say the trees of the plain will need at least forty years to flourish and bear fruit once again. But what worries many of them is something else.

“How are we to know our land? All the characteristics have changed. We used to distinguish the borders of each piece of land by marks known to no one except us, such as a particular tree, or stones placed in a way we memorized by heart. As for now? ‘Compensation comes only from God’.”