South Damascus camp empty amidst regime promises to rebuild

March 31, 2015

Al-Husseinia camp in southern Damascus has been a no-man's land for the past year and a half; devoid of inhabitants and surrounded by a tight regime security cordon.

The camp's majority-Palestinian residents, roughly 72,000 before the war began, announced their neutrality early on in the Syrian conflict. Nevertheless, fighters with the FSA took control over al-Husseinia in the beginning of 2013, leading to a regime bombing campaign and subsequent widespread displacement of residents, according to al-Husseinia Camp News.

The regime managed to take back the camp in October 2013, backed by several Palestinian brigades, and has since repeatedly promised to allow families to go home after the area is secured and rebuilt [see, for example, pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan this past Sunday: “Return to al-Husseinia is 'Very Close.'”]

But even though the regime has maintained tight control since taking the camp back, it has moved no closer to allowing residents to return, citing security concerns and continuous reconstruction.

These are “feeble” excuses, says Amir a-Shami, the alias of a citizen journalist from al-Husseinia. The camp is secure and the regime has never seriously undertaken repairs, he said.

The Syrian government wants to hold on to al-Husseinia to preserve its strategic interests, a-Shami tells Syria Direct's Moatasem Jamal. Al-Husseinia is located near the historic Shiite area of Sayeda Zeinab, sitting on on a crossroads between the Suwayda-Damascus highway and the airport road.

It is less about allowing people to return to their homes than “the regime's fear over the safety of the Sayeda Zeinab area.”

Q: What's the importance of the al-Husseinia camp as far as the regime is concerned?

Its importance lies in its location on a crossroads on the Suwayda-Damascus highway and the airport road.

The camp is only several kilometers away from the Umayyad Palace, and adjacent to brigades and Syrian army units.

0331HussybiyehCamp Inside al-Husseinia camp in February. Photo courtesy of @actgroup_pal.

Q: How does the Syrian government justify forbidding the residents of al-Husseinia from returning despite making repeated promises to them?

The justifications focus around the area not being ready from a security standpoint, a feeble justification considering that the regime has been in control of the area and its vicinity for more than a year.

Also, the government says that the area is not ready because of destroyed infrastructure. This is the most common excuse.

What people are saying, however, is that [the government is not letting people back in] because of its proximity to the Sayeda Zeinab area, which contains large gatherings of Shiites. The regime's fear over the safety of the Sayeda Zeinab area is the main reason.

Q: There are reports that the regime intends to build camps [in al-Husseinia] and house Shiite soldiers in there—is there any truth to these claims?

There's been no tangible step in this direction, though from time to time there's talk of it.

It's worth noting that the regime has destroyed houses near Sayeda Zeinab, in the a-Dhiabia area between al-Husseinia and Sayeda Zeinab.

Q: Is the Syrian government really rebuilding the area as it claims?

For an entire year there were only promises. Several government commissions entered the camp, including the Minister of Labor and the Governor of Damascus. Throughout their visits, teams repaired electricity and water towers.

Repair crews entered but worked very slowly. Also, the infrastructure is totally destroyed and needs SP5,000,000 ($26,465) for repairs, according to the Minister of Works.

But practically speaking, the camp was not rebuilt. The regime's excuse for not allowing residents back to the camp (that it's rebuilding) is intended merely to keep the residents quiet.

Q: How are the residents of al-Husseinia camp doing right now? How are they living? Where are they living?

The residents are distributed across the remaining camps [in the area]. The two biggest factions are living in Jaramana camp and Danun camp. They are suffering through an increase in the cost of living, and rent, and other social problems.

The rest of the residents are distributed across several areas in Damascus like Qudsiya (that contains shelters for internally displaced Syrians). A number of families fled to Yarmouk camp before it was besieged. They're living there until now. No one acknowledges them.

Q: How are the residents of the camp reacting to the government's decisions and promises? Do they believe them? Have they lost hope?

People are divided into two main groups. The first has lost hope and no longer relies on the government's promises, doesn't even take interest in them. Another group believes, or claims to believe, the promises. They say that they are forced to, in order to return to their houses and take a rest from life's burdens and the burden of homelessness.

Q: What role do the Palestinian brigades play in solving the camps’ problems?

The Palestinian brigades [al-Jabha a-Shaabia li-Tahrir Falastin, Fatah al-Intifada and Jabhat a-Nidal] have not helped solve the camp's problems. They haven't presented any solutions, and, quite the opposite, have participated, along with the regime and Shiite militias in removing the FSA from the camp.

The regime promised them that if they participated, it would return the families to the camp. The Palestinian factions promised that to the residents, in turn. But after they kicked the FSA out of the camp, the regime moved the Palestinian brigades and sent them off to other fronts.

Q: There are reports that the Liwa al-Quds al-Filistini brigade wants to take the camp as a base. What are you hearing?

Liwa al-Quds is operational in the north, especially in Aleppo and its vicinity. We haven't heard of, or seen any presence in Damascus during the past four years. That claim is devoid of truth in my opinion, and impossible considering they're busy fighting on the fronts in Aleppo.

But anything could happen.

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