The aftermath of surrender: One Damascus suburb drowns in uncollected garbage

When Umm Yazan returned to her home in her native city of Moadamiyet a-Sham, 7km south of Damascus, after five years of being displaced, she immediately made plans to leave again.

What she saw was trash piled outside her home, lining the street. Inside, she found mortar debris and rubble. So Umm Yazan took her family and left once more.

Since the day Umm Yazan briefly returned last December, little has changed in the Damascus suburb, which surrendered to the regime in October 2016.

Today, insects pervade the mounds of garbage, artillery fragments lie in the alleyways between battered buildings and the stench of burning trash fills the air.

The estimated 40,000 residents of Moadamiyeh, who endured years of crippling siege, a reported sarin gas attack and months of aerial and ground bombardment, are now plagued by another problem: trash.

Since the regime took back the town last October, the municipality has only collected the garbage once, and that was when the governor of Outer Damascus paid a visit, resident Mohammad al-Moadamani tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Nassar and Reham Toujan.

“The sight of trash might have hurt their eyes,” al-Moadamani comments wryly, adding that the city only cleared the roads that the governor passed through on his visit last year.

The rest of the town, says the former rebel, is covered in trash.

"We’re afraid of an epidemic.”

Mohammad al-Moadamani, 30, is a former Free Syrian Army fighter who remained inside Moadamiyeh after the October ceasefire agreement between the Syrian regime and the rebels in the city. Syria Direct interviewed al-Moadamani last November about his new life under regime control.

Q: How long has trash been accumulating inside Moadamiyeh?

Since regime forces encircled the town in 2012. During the four years of crippling siege and the complete absence of state services, garbage accumulated in every corner of Moadamiyeh, from its alleyways to the main streets.

The situation is indescribable.

Even though the regime claimed it would make Moadamiyeh a model for national reconciliations, it hasn’t upheld any of its promises, except for the evacuation of residents. One regime official said that Moadamiyeh would become the “second Qardaha.”

[Ed.: Qardaha, home of the Assad family, is a regime bastion in Latakia province.]

 A street in Moadamiyeh, March 2017. Photo courtesy of Mohammad al-Moadamani.

Q: How did residents dispose of garbage during the siege, when rebels controlled the city?

The local council was the only party that formally supervised garbage removal. When it had funding, the council would transport trash to landfills.

Otherwise, residents would organize among themselves. They would form teams to pick up garbage from densely populated residential areas.

Others burned their garbage, to prevent diseases from spreading.

Q: Since state institutions resumed operations in November, has any party cleared trash from the city?

Yes, but only once, last November when the governor of Outer Damascus province visited the city. During that visit, the municipality cleaned up the main streets that the governor and his delegation were scheduled to pass through because the sight of trash might have hurt their eyes.

As for the rest of the city, residents continue to watch as the mounds of garbage grow. We’re afraid of an epidemic.

Residents learned that the UN was going to donate $110,000 to the municipality to clean up the town. But the agreement was cancelled by the Outer Damascus governorate, which claimed that there were rebel fighters staying inside the city who had not reconciled with the regime.

The funding was also supposed to support the municipality—which professes that it can’t provide residents with services due to a low budget—in supplying electricity, water and mobile services. At first, those services were completely unavailable. Right now, they’re barely working.

[Ed.: On March 9, Syria Direct spoke with a member of the Moadamiyeh reconciliation committee, who confirmed that an initial agreement with the UN to clear up trash was cancelled. “The Outer Damascus governorate canceled the agreement, claiming that some armed rebels in the city have not surrendered their weapons and left for Idlib,” he said.]

Q: How are residents responding to the accumulation of trash in the city?

Almost all of the streets in my city are covered in trash. The only choice residents have is to set their trash on fire and put up with the awful smell of burning garbage.

Q: Are residents getting sick from the unsanitary living conditions?

Thank God, no one has gotten sick yet. But as trash piles continue to swell, we’re afraid that there’ll be an outbreak of disease.

Q: Which government services have resumed?

Most services are nonexistent—bread ovens are forbidden from opening and gas stations can’t resume their work.

Electricity is virtually a myth, and water only comes once a month.

Schools and residential buildings are still in need of repair, former government employees haven’t returned to their jobs and there’s no trace of detainees, who were supposed to be released as a part of the ceasefire agreement.

The one hospital in Moadamiyeh was shut down because most of the medical staff left for Idlib. The regime hasn’t provided any medical services, leaving Moadamiyeh effectively devoid of medical care. Residents have to go to Damascus for treatment.

Those responsible for clearing trash from the city are neglecting their duties. We’re always asking the municipality to clean up the trash. We’re residents, living under their rule. Burning garbage is extremely bad for our health and has created a stench that permeates the entire city. And the garbage that hasn’t been burned is attracting all types of insects and bugs. In both cases, this is bad for the environment and even worse for residents.

There’s not a day that goes by when my family and I aren’t constantly coughing.

Q: Four months after the ceasefire agreement, do you regret staying inside Moadamiyeh?

What I’m seeing gives me no reason to be hopeful. All of my options point to a dark future.

But I decided to stay, prepared for the most difficult consequences. This is my city. So many of its residents have died, and people are still suffering inside the regime’s prison cells.

Moadamiyeh deserves to be nicknamed the city of martyrs and perseverance because of these tragedies we’ve witnessed and are still facing.

There is still a dream, hidden deep within the hearts of Moadamiyeh’s young and old, of freedom and a dignified way of life. It hasn’t died yet.

**

Umm Yazan is a displaced Moadamiyeh resident who returned to the city in December. She decide not to resettle in the city because of the trash that had accumulated in her neighborhood and the condition of her house. She and her family of five live in a town in the Damascus countryside, paying SP150,000 ($700) a month for rent.

Q: When did you return to Moadamiyeh?  

I returned in mid-December, once the regime permitted displaced residents to return to the town. I longed to see my house, every room, corner and tile. I had been gone for more than five years.

We had trouble entering the neighborhood from the main road because of the checkpoints, so we took a back road, called Four Seasons, to get to the house.

 Outside of Umm Yazan’s home in December. Photo courtesy of Umm Yazan.

Q: What condition were Moadamiyeh and your home in?

Moadamiyeh was like a ghost town, frequented only by crows. I felt like a stranger inside my own city. It was tragic.

Piles of garbage blocked the alley that leads to my neighborhood. When I reached my street, I stumbled across my family’s photo album lying on the ground.

My house had been completely ransacked—the windows stolen, the kitchen tiles stripped. Nothing was spared. I even found mortar fragments inside.

But I’m lucky, compared with some of my neighbors. I saw houses that were completely flattened to the ground. Garbage filled every corner and crevice of the city.

Q: Do you think about returning to Moadamiyeh and settling there?  

Yes, I’d return today if I could. But it’s difficult to do so now with the lack of services—no one’s cleaning up the streets or picking up the debris. The head of the municipality told residents to restore their homes and throw out their trash, and that the city would clear the roads and neighborhoods of the garbage and rubble. This hasn’t happened yet, despite the promises.  

Residents began repairing their homes, but the streets remain covered in trash.

Q: Have other residents returned to Moadamiyeh despite the condition of the city?

Yes, around 20 percent of the residents. Some people couldn’t afford to pay rent elsewhere any longer, especially since the cost of living has increased.

They barely make enough to feed their children. So they came back to Moadamiyeh, to their houses, despite the lack of services in the city.

I know other families who are preparing to return to Moadamiyeh.

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.

Reham Toujan

Reham is originally from Outer Damascus. She moved to Jordan because of the war. She joined Syria direct because she wants to write about human rights.

Adam a-Shami

Adam is 26 years old and is from Damascus. He studied economics but could not complete his studies due to the war. He moved to Jordan in 2013. Adam joined Syria Direct to learn the principles of journalism.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.