In Destroyed Damascus Suburbs, Arrests Show Dangers of Requesting to Return Home

Security patrols arrested dozens of young men in the town of Babila south of Damascus earlier this month under the pretext of searching for opposition sleeper cells and drug dealers, according to pro-opposition news site Sowt Al-Asimeh. Out of dozens of arrests, 12 targeted Palestinian men displaced from the neighbouring city of Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad. The 12 men were likely targeted for arrest deliberately, after they reportedly underwent security checks as part of their applications to return to their homes in Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad.

The arrests illustrate the dangers of formally requesting to return home to areas such as Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad. Particularly at risk are those who security forces suspect of being opposition sympathisers, and who remained in former rebel-held areas after the regime retook control. 

For those wishing to return to their houses in such districts, they are usually required to submit a formal request to municipal authorities, as well as obtain a security permit and possess valid home ownership documents. 

According to Syrian state media, 38,000 families displaced from Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad have expressed a desire to return home, but it was unclear whether these people had filed any formal requests yet. 

Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad sits just south of Damascus, adjacent to Yarmouk, Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp. The city belongs to Damascus Countryside governorate and takes up 536 hectares of land, most of which is built up with informal ashwa’iyat housing. Many of Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad’s residents came to the town from the Golan Heights and Quneitra after the 1967 war saw Israeli forces seize the area. Upon arrival in the town, they built largely informal ashwa’iyat on what was once farmland. 

Syria’s most recent census in 2004 counted more than 80,000 people living in Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad, including residents whose origins lay in several governorates across the country. However, other estimates placed Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad’s population at more than 200,000 people in 2011 due to the city’s proximity to Damascus proper, and low rental costs in the ashwa’iyat. 

Opposition forces took control of the town in late 2012. Residents were displaced multiple times, especially after the Islamic State seized control in 2015. The town was virtually emptied of its residents in 2018, amid battles that saw the regime recapture control from the Islamic State. 

Residents have yet to return, although Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad’s city council has estimated that 80 percent of housing in the town is still habitable. The government has promised multiple times since 2018 that residents will be able to come home. However, rehabilitation efforts did not begin in Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad until June 2020, coordinated by the Damascus Countryside and Quneitra governorates. Workers began removing rubble and rehabilitating some neighbourhoods. The cooperation between the two governorates is due to the large number of displaced people from Quneitra in Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad.

Authorities in the Damascus Countryside governorate recently announced that they had finished repairing Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad’s main roads and removed 6,000 cubic metres of war-related debris. Still, residents are not yet allowed to enter the city. Only workers are permitted inside to remove remaining steel and other metals from buildings destroyed in the fighting. In August 2019, teams managed by the elite Fourth Division led by Maher Al-Assad demolished some remaining buildings with explosives to harvest building materials, according to opposition media reports at the time. 

Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad’s zoning plans date back to 1987, but they have been neither implemented nor amended since then. The city has expanded to several times the size zoned for it in the 1987 plan, in the form of large ashwa’iyat neighbourhoods that attracted low-income Syrians arriving to search for work in Damascus from elsewhere in the country. 

In March 2020, the Damascus Countryside Governorate said it was working to prepare the area within the 1987 zoning plan as part of an effort to begin repairing infrastructure and provide utility services before allowing residents to return. It is possible that authorities have continued to prevent residents from returning in order to issue a new zoning plan for Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad that will include the surrounding ashwa’iyat areas, similar to other areas on Damascus’s outskirts, such as Qaboun, Qadam and Yarmouk camp