Displaced Damascenes fear “reconstruction” is a fig leaf for the permanent transformation of their former home neighborhoods—and their exclusion therefrom.
[Editor’s note: The following is the second in a two-part report from Damascus and its surrounding province, originally published in Arabic on 3 November, 2017. The first installment may be read here.]
DAMASCUS - In a March 2016 interview with the Russian media, Bashar al-Assad spoke about the reconstruction of Syria, which must begin, in his opinion, “even before the crisis ends, that we may reduce, as much as possible, the economic and infrastructural fallout for the Syrian citizen, and at the same time reduce emigration from the country.”
One year later, at the start of March 2017, a resident of Damascus’ al-Qaboun neighborhood, Ahmad, tried to exploit the few moments of calm that punctuated the continual rocket strikes falling on the area at night to leave his bomb shelter and try to retrieve some things from his house. When he opened the door of his home, however, he was surprised to see that it—the door, that is—was all that remained of the house, after a rocket had destroyed everything he owned behind that door, from the house itself to his agricultural land.
After that, Ahmad and his family sought refuge in East Ghouta, where he remains to this day along with hundreds of families who no longer have any other shelter after the regime regained control of all of Damascus’ eastern neighborhoods last May, preventing the return of residents to the al-Qaboun and Tishreen quarters. Hardly a day goes by without Ahmad posting photos on his Facebook page of his destroyed house, and his neighborhood of which nothing remains except piles of rubble, and questions about the promises of reconstruction that abound in the speeches and interviews of Bashar al-Assad.
“A few weeks ago, we heard news of the clearing away of the houses of al-Qaboun located on the national Damascus-Homs highway,” says Ahmad. “This removal began at the time of the battle of the industrial area in 2012, which ended with the regime retaking control over it and the razing of its houses and shops in their entirety, depriving most of the neighborhood’s families of their fundamental income sources. And talk is rife about plans to build new tower buildings over the neighborhood’s land. In any case I care little about a house I might get in some grand building made up of ten or twenty floors, for it wouldn’t compensate me for my land and my home, even if that was just a haphazard building.”
Likewise Ahmad is concerned, as are many other al-Qaboun residents who were forcibly displaced, about another matter.
“We think the regime will convert the neighborhood, after its reconstruction, into a military zone, or something resembling the loyalist neighborhoods in Damascus and on its fringes, along the lines of al-Mezze 86, al-Tadhamun and al-Sumeriyya, especially given the presence of bases for the special forces, the military police, and the air force intelligence on the fringes of the neighborhood. How are we to return to live in our neighborhood if its demographic makeup has changed? Perhaps we’ll be accused of sectarianism, but let’s call it like it is: none of al-Qaboun’s residents is going to return to live side-by-side with those who had a hand in their murder and displacement.”
What Ahmad means here are members of the army, and the security agencies, and the sectarian militias whom he believes are sure to receive rewards for fighting all these years alongside the regime.
“The regime today may be unable to pay great monthly salaries to its mercenaries, but it’s certain they have hopes for what’s coming after the war, in the same way as they obtained their share from the looting of our properties after our displacement from the neighborhood.”
For this reason, Ahmad believes al-Qaboun will never again return to what it was, and its residents’ fate will be to sell their houses for a pittance, and leave to reside in another neighborhood or city; “that’s if the war does end one day.”
From death to Dubai
In the middle of 2015, the family of Samer, a resident of the al-Mezze Basateen neighborhood in western Damascus, received a notice to evacuate their house within a period not exceeding two months, pursuant to Decree Number 66 issued in 2012, which decrees “the creation of two areas from the areas of al-Mezze and Kafr Sousa and Darayya, primarily, as part of the general plan for the city of Damascus to develop areas of violations and haphazard residence.”
Written on the notice paper furnished with the signature of the Governor of Damascus, Bishr al-Sabban, which the governorate distributed in the company of military police patrols, was the following: “In light of the fact the organizational plan for the area southeast of al-Mezze requires the demolition of the building occupied by yourselves, I notify you of the necessity of evacuating this building and handing it over to the Damascus governorate, drawing your attention to the fact this time period is final, and not open to extension, given that the Damascus governorate shall begin the demolition of the building immediately upon the expiration of the time period granted to you, and shall bear no responsibility for any damages incurred by you as a result of your failure to undertake its evacuation in full.”
The project, which is expected to take five years, bears the name “Maruta City,” maruta being a Syriac word meaning “sovereignty and the nation,” according to local Syrian media outlets. These outlets have further stated that, “The Damascus governorate has given free rein to the art of creativity and architectural development, such that there will be no shackling of the companies working on building the city, and they will have complete freedom in the architectural designs and styles of the construction, both in terms of the general form and the number of floors, while adhering to safety and wellbeing standards.”
Indeed, the Damascus governorate has promised Maruta City, which will comprise three towers with more than fifty floors, will be even more beautiful than Dubai, “with the adoption of global standards in urban construction and the exertion of great efforts in the reconstruction phase.”
For Samer and his family, as for thousands of other families, Decree Number 66 meant homelessness for an indefinite time period.
“That the compensation we received was meager is the least one could say about it. Some received amounts no more than 50,000 Syrian pounds (c. $97) per month at best, set to last until the project is finished and an alternative residence is obtained therein. Others received compensation of 1,000 pounds (c. $2) for each tree they lost from their agricultural land.”
Such an amount does not suffice to rent a house in the Damascus suburbs, and with the passage of time and the depreciation of the Syrian pound, the amount has lost over half its real value, equivalent to no more than a hundred US dollars. It is this that drives Samer to question the reasons for the early evacuation more than two years ago.
Some of the families that tried to oppose their evacuation met the expected fate: the arrest of some of their members by military security. Other families met with direct threats of the same fate, and some of those who tried to mobilize residents to protest the warnings and the limited time periods disappeared without a trace, according to Samer.
“Every time I pass near the al-Mezze Basateen area I’m anguished by what’s happened to us,” he says. “There are no towers or buildings of any kind yet; there’s nothing except piles of earth put there ever since they decided to demolish our homes, still exactly as they were.”
“The conversations circulating today are about corruption eating away at the project, as is the case with all Syrian institutions, and about a Syrian-Iranian-Russian power struggle. Could they not have preserved our homes until the vision for this project was finalized? Could we not have been spared the strain of these two years of homelessness? Are we truly part of a so-called “organization plan,” or a plan for reconstruction and demographic change? These are the questions that keep us up at night every day, without us ever being able to get clear answers.”
Dreams of justice, nightmares of reality
Maryam complains of her family’s daily conversations about returning to the Jobar neighborhood, which to her seems like a naïve and totally unattainable pipe dream.
She is equally amused by the serious discussions which often take place in their rented house in the Rukn al-Din neighborhood, about how to achieve equitable reconstruction, whereby everyone’s rights will be restored after the loss of properties and land in this neighborhood that was mostly leveled to the ground.
“Many late nights have passed with my family and their guests drawing plans and maps of what the neighborhood was like before the war, and trying to set out the borders of the houses and shops and land plots, and name their owners, thinking that the biggest problem they’ll face after the end of the war and the beginning of reconstruction is the delineation of these borders.”
It doesn’t seem that Maryam’s family and their guests are mistaken, for a large proportion of Jobar’s buildings are haphazard, and registered in the real estate records with the description “green deed,” meaning without the specifications or documentation necessary to be deemed regular buildings. This sparks fears for many of the residents of Jobar, which remains to this day at the mercy of the rockets and fighter jets of the regime, due to its location under opposition fighters’ control.
“My father thinks that in the event the fighting stops in the neighborhood, we should return to inquire about the mechanism by which the properties of its residents will be identified, and by which they will be compensated for the losses faced when the reconstruction phase is launched,” says Maryam. “I see this as a sheer fantasy with a criminal regime such as the Syrian one, which cares nothing for rights or justice.”
And the concerns of Maryam’s father do not end at the right to property and compensation for losses, but rather he believes the people of Jobar must hold fast to the identity of their neighborhood, and not allow it to be effaced.
“Even these dreams of identity will remain a mere fantasy,” says Maryam. “I know my father is certain of that at the bottom of his heart, but he refuses to believe or give in, preferring to stick to his position so that he doesn’t one day come to regret not trying everything that could conceivably have brought him his sought-for and imagined justice.”