Cementing dispossession: the bitter reality of reconstruction in Syria
Pro-government supporters and regime forces attend a flag raising ceremony at the entrance of the Hajar al-Aswad neighbourhood on the southern outskirts of Damascus after the regime seized the Yarmuk Palestinian camp and adjacent neighborhoods, 24/5/2018 (AFP)
BEIRUT — In April 2018, Mona Khaity got on a green bus in the city of Douma, in eastern Ghouta, leaving behind five years of siege and her home, which remains empty to date. This 37-year-old laboratory doctor is one of the 12 million Syrians forced into displacement, inside Syria or abroad, many of whom have seen their Housing, Land and Property (HLP) rights violated.
Mona, currently living in Turkey, lost her home as a result of being displaced under a so-called ‘reconciliation agreement’, while others have been displaced because of the bombs. Further, thousands have seen their properties seized through counterterrorism legislation. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has documented 3,970 seizures of property “of detained or forcibly displaced opponents” since 2012. Hundreds of homes have been looted and occupied and others have been expropriated by redevelopment plans or the owners simply blocked from returning by armed actors.
The first laws violating HLP rights were issued in 2012 but were overlooked given the military developments. Now, in the prelude of Syria’s reconstruction, addressing HLP rights are key to drawing the future of the country.
Displacement has become a tool to punish opponents and reward loyalists. HLP violations are part of a “wider strategy for demographic reengineering and for attaining political and economic interests,” Sawsan Abou Zainedin, a Syrian architect and urban development planner, told Syria Direct.
Demographic changes are evident in Daraa, Hama, Homs suburbs, Yarmouk camp and the Damascus area, places where the revolution took hold, Haya Ataasi, spokesperson of the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity (SACD), told Syria Direct. “There are whole neighborhoods of new people who are staying in the houses of other people,” added Ataasi, who has herself seen the house of a relative in the city of Homs occupied by an Iranian company.
Most of the parties involved in the Syrian conflict have perpetrated HLP violations. “The Syrian government is the most sophisticated actor in the sense that it puts into place laws that are seemingly banal but inflict severe restriction on the civilian population. But actors like the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) and Kurdish-led groups to a certain extent have also had their fair share of HLP violations,” Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told Syria Direct.
Kurds and Palestinians, trapped in a different legal framework when it comes to property rights, are further marginalized. The same applies to women who are trapped in patriarchal norms and suffer structural discrimination in terms of inheritance, for instance. Women whose husbands have been forcibly disappeared and lack a death certificate are unable to sell their property.Most of the areas where the revolution was active were underprivileged or informal areas. This informality – that affects 50% of Syrian cities – makes it more challenging to prove ownership of a property and, consequently, fighting the “demolition and reconstruction” approach taken by the government, Abou Zainedin explained.