Could Displaced Residents Soon Return to Ayn Al-Fijeh?

For the first time since regime forces recaptured the Wadi Barada area west of Damascus in 2017, the government permitted displaced residents to visit the area in December 2020 to inspect their properties in the towns  of Ayn Al-Fijeh, Basimeh and Ayn Al-Khudra.

Regime forces allowed residents to enter the towns for two hours each day from December 17 to 21. The visits were restricted to people whose names were included on special lists held by security forces, and were granted on condition that visitors hand over their identity cards to the security points stationed at the entrances of the three towns, and that the local mayors supervise the visits.

Ayn Al-Fijeh is located about 15 kilometres west of the Damascus city centre, and its spring is the main source of drinking water for the capital and part of its surrounding countryside. Regime forces previously demolished homes and entire residential neighbourhoods in Ayn Al-Fijeh, in accordance with Law No. 1 of 2018, which established a closed off zone surrounding the spring. The same process was repeated in Basimeh and Ayn Al-Khudra. Regime forces have prevented the towns’ displaced residents from returning since 2017. Most of them now reside in towns near Wadi Barada, and in Damascus.

Pro-government media outlets recently published videos appearing to show groups of displaced Ayn Al-Fijeh residents chanting in favour of the Syrian president at the entrance of the town. They were led by the mayors of Ayn Al-Fijeh, Basimeh and Ayn Al-Khudra, as well as some members of reconciliation committees and Baathists from Wadi Barada villages. The demonstrators chanted at the request of an officer from the Republican Guard, an elite unit in the Syrian Army, which controls the area, to thank the Syrian leadership for allowing them to visit their homes.

The Damascus Countryside governorate had entered into a contract in August 2020 with the General Company for Engineering Studies (GCES), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, to prepare the detailed, organisational and zoning plans for the planned “Wadi Barada Suburb". The suburb is meant to serve as alternative housing for residents whose properties were expropriated under Law No. 1 of 2018, as well as for those whose homes were destroyed due to fighting in the area. Law No. 1 resulted in the expropriation of around 165 hectares of land, entirely surrounding the Ayn Al-Fijeh spring. Previously, the closed-off zone around the spring was only seven hectares. Some 45 hectares of land surrounding the spring previously belonged to Ayn Al-Fijeh, while the remaining 120 hectares are located within the boundaries of neighbouring villages. All occupants of the land were removed.

Residents who visited the towns last month estimated that the buildings and infrastructure in Ayn Al-Fijeh and Basimeh had sustained around 70 percent damage, according to a correspondent in the area.

However, the new approach of allowing residents to inspect their properties could mean that plans for the construction of the Wadi Barada suburb have been postponed for the time being, albeit with no indications that expropriations around the spring will be reversed.

Similar returns are also happening in towns at the eastern entrance of Damascus, and in the Yarmouk refugee camp, after delays in implementing new local zoning plans. These developments all come at a time when the Syrian government lacks funding to implement large-scale reconstruction projects and faces pressure for internally displaced people to return to their hometowns.

Meanwhile, the Damascus Countryside governorate has made new promises to displaced people that in 2021 it will begin work to rehabilitate infrastructure in Wadi Barada towns, as well as remove rubble and demolish homes at risk of collapse. In an interview with the Al-Watan newspaper on 17 December, the head of the Municipal Councils Directorate at the Damascus Countryside Governorate linked the return of residents to Ayn Al-Fijeh, Basimeh and Ayn Al-Khudra to conclusions made at the International Conference on the Return of Displaced People, held by the Syrian government in November 2020 with Russian sponsorship.

Residents gather at the entrance of Ayn Al-Fijeh.

Source: social media