As southern ceasefire holds, displaced Daraa residents begin returning home to 'destroyed' rebel-held districts

AMMAN: Scores of displaced residents of Syria's southern Daraa city are cautiously returning home, a Civil Defense official and two civilians told Syria Direct on Tuesday, two weeks after a US- and Russian-brokered ceasefire brought a shaky halt to clashes there.

"We heard about the southern ceasefire and saw the bombardment was actually decreasing, so we came back home," Abu Mohammed, a 48-year-old father of six from the city's Daraa Camp neighborhood told Syria Direct on Tuesday. He and his family fled the city in June, during the most recent round of bombardment.

"When I returned, I found that half of my house had been completely wiped away," he added.

Daraa city has seen a state of “relative calm” since a truce brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan went into effect on July 9, aimed at easing tensions between opposition and pro-regime factions amassed in southwestern Syria.

Daraa is one of three provinces—including neighboring Quneitra and Suwayda—included in the deal, which was announced at the G20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month.

Rebel-held Daraa city on Monday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Daraa Province.

“The relative calm of the bombings after the agreement is the main reason displaced people are now returning to the city,” Mustafa al-Muhameid, director of the Syrian Civil Defense’s Daraa branch, told Syria Direct on Tuesday. He estimated that at least 200 families have returned in recent days.

Most, like Abu Mohammad, are returning to homes flattened by the most recent round of rebel-regime fighting in June—the largest battles there since 2015. Hundreds of regime and Russian airstrikes along with artillery shells from both sides crushed civilian homes and shops along the frontlines.

Neighborhoods inside Daraa city’s southern, rebel-held sector “are around 90 percent destroyed,” al-Muhameid said. There is no electricity or running water, he said, adding that piles of debris are making streets “impassible.”

He and other Civil Defense volunteers are in their second day of a campaign on Tuesday—dubbed “Daraa Hope”—to remove the debris and reopen city streets, but a lack of funds limits what can actually be repaired after the cleanup ends.

“Rebuilding will take a long time,” he said.

Daraa resident Abu Mohammad and Abu Tammam, another recent returnee who spoke with Syria Direct on Tuesday, both said that rebuilding a life in Daraa city is preferable to displacement.

Abu Tammam, 37, fled his home neighborhood of Tariq a-Sadd for the countryside in June with his wife and seven children. They lived together in a tent, unable to afford a rental home.

 Rebel-held Daraa city on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Syrian Civil Defense-Daraa Province.

But following the most recent ceasefire, he decided to move back home last week, where he found only one room of his house still intact. Once a poultry salesman, he discovered all of his chickens had died, left unfed for weeks.

“I felt like I was suffocating, and my heart hurt when I saw all the destruction,” Abu Tammam said.

Both he and Abu Mohammad say they have hope that the most recent ceasefire agreement “will not fail,” despite it being only the latest attempt at halting tensions in Daraa. In early May, Daraa province was one of four areas across Syria designed by Russia as “de-escalation zones,” where “warfare between the government troops and armed opposition units” was to cease, Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian Defense Ministry said in a briefing at the time.

Just one month later, relative calm in Daraa city collapsed when fighting broke out between rebel and regime forces, followed by an onslaught of airstrikes and shellfire that sent thousands fleeing into the surrounding countryside.

Among those who fled in June were Abu Mohammad and Abu Tammam.

“I believe that this time, the agreement will succeed,” Abu Mohammad told Syria Direct from the Daraa Camp neighborhood, a former Palestinian refugee camp now incorporated into the city. There, he has returned to his previous job selling produce. Despite losing his grocery story in last month’s bombing, he hopes the income can help him repair his damaged house.

Abu Tammam also sees hope in the latest deal, though still has not found a reliable source of income to afford anything beyond basic necessities, which he buys from nearby villages outside of Daraa city.

“But I have hope that this city will thrive again,” he said on Tuesday from his house in Tariq a-Sadd. “Eventually we can just go living our lives like anyone else dreams of doing.”

Alaa Nassar

Alaa was forced to flee Damascus with her family because of the pressure from the Syrian regime in 2013. She was a student of Arabic Language & Literature at the University of Damascus. She came to Syria Direct because she hopes to find a new direction in her life and to show the world what is happening in her country.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.