‘A few days’ becomes 3 years for displaced Daraa residents in search of housing

On May 12, 2013, Khirbet Ghazaleh’s 40,000 residents left their town in one mass wave.

That day, Syrian Arab Army forces entered from the Daraa-Damascus highway in the west and seized the town.

Free Syrian Army (FSA) battalions had announced their retreat east from the Syrian Arab Army in southern Syria’s Daraa province. Residents, seeing what was coming, grabbed what they could and fled en masse.

“We thought we’d be able to return after a few days,” 42-year-old Ahmad, a displaced Khirbet Ghazaleh resident, explains to Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali.

Townspeople considered the evacuation temporary because reinforcements were expected to arrive. That never happened, and the window to take back the town closed.

Khirbet Ghazaleh lies on the highway running down the middle of Daraa province that leads into Jordan. It is one of three towns that form a triangle at an important intersection linking the eastern area of Daraa with the west. Khirbet’s fall from rebel hands meant a strategic prize for the regime.

Displaced families moved on to Jordan, to regime-controlled areas of the Daraa countryside and to the town of Ghirayah in the rebel-held east Daraa countryside. Today, an estimated 18,000 displaced Khirbet Ghazaleh residents live in Ghirayah, local council member Moutesam al-Jouran told online news site Enab Baladi in May.

Top: Khirbet Ghazaleh in February 2013. Bottom: March 2014. Photos courtesy of Google Earth.

The long-term presence of the displaced in Ghirayah has caused a housing crisis, with some “resorting to sleeping in cars,” says Ahmed. “The main issue is housing because we all left Khirbet Ghazaleh at once.”

Landlords are raising rents and evicting the displaced “because they’re afraid that after such a long time, these tenants will become squatters.”

Displaced Khirbet Ghazaleh residents have begun negotiating a return with the Syrian regime. However, talks are stalled over the issue of mandatory military service.

Q: Why did residents flee Khirbet Ghazaleh? What factors led the townspeople to leave all at once?

We fled during the Jisr al-Houran battle that took place on the Damascus-Daraa International Highway. Clashes erupted along the [western] border of Khirbet Ghazaleh as regime forces bombarded the town with artillery.

[Ed.: The Battle of Jisr al-Houran began in early March 2013 and lasted 66 days.]

We left on May 12, 2013. Later that day, the Syrian Arab Army took complete control of the town.

Q: Have town residents thought about returning to their homes? Have there been any negotiations with the regime on this matter?

A committee of displaced Khirbet Ghazaleh residents [in Ghirayah] formed to negotiate a return to their homes with the Syrian regime. They met the head of the Military Intelligence Branch in the province, Wafiq Nasser, Defense Minister Fahd al-Freij, and General Rustum Ghazaleh.

There are conditions that come with a return. Young men would need to join the Popular Committees and fight alongside the regime army.

Up to this point, there hasn’t been any agreement that satisfied both sides.

Q: What about your home? Was it destroyed by regime forces? How can residents find out what happened to their homes and belongings?

The only way I can see my home is through Google Maps. It only updates once a year so I don’t know whether it’s still standing or in ruins. There’s no other way to know what’s happening in the town. Every now and again, I see thick smoke rising from the town or hear an explosion, [likely] the sound of a house being destroyed.

Q: You and other former residents of Khirbet Ghazaleh live in the village of Ghirayah in the east Daraa countryside, just 8km away from your hometown. Can you describe life there?

The main issue is housing because we left Khirbet Ghazaleh in one wave. We thought we’d be able to return after a few days, but we’ve been here since 2013. It’s become impossible to find housing options.  

Some displaced families are staying with relatives and friends. A group of Ghirayah residents have offered extra rooms to shelter the displaced. Other displaced residents are renting houses.

Rent is always going up though, and it’s now around SP10,000-SP15,000 [$18-$28] per month.

Residents work in construction or agriculture and a few smuggle fuels from regime territory. Several Khirbet Ghazaleh towns people are employees in government schools or ministries, but the salaries only cover the cost of rent, and just barely.  

Landlords have begun to evict displaced families from their homes because they need the space for themselves. They’re afraid that after such a long time, these tenants will become squatters. Displaced people are resorting to sleeping in cars.

There’s no support for the displaced residents and no progress toward a return to Khirbet Ghazaleh. Activists have appealed to the Syrian National Coalition, but there hasn’t been any response.

[Ed.: Currently, displaced residents receive no support from the local councils in the region. Former residents of Khirbet Ghazaleh say they have sent two requests to the opposition Syrian National Coalition for humanitarian relief, specifically monetary assistance for housing.]

Q: Could you talk more about the residents’ departure from Khirbet Ghazaleh, considering they thought they would return soon?

All the residents left the town on the same day with just the clothes on their backs. They left all their possessions in their homes: furniture, jewelry, money saved away. In some cases, residents left three to four million Syrian pounds [$5,500-7,400] saved in their homes.

Many residents used to make a living through agriculture, but left their farming tools, tractors, and water pumps.

We had to start our lives all over again, from scratch. 

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.