In mid-2013, when the Free Syrian Army took control of Abu Majd al-Hourani’s hometown of Ankhel and neighboring Jasim in southern Syria’s Daraa province, about 50km south of Damascus, the 35-year-old former schoolteacher took his family and fled alongside thousands of others to the relative safety of regime-held a-Sanamayn, just 4.5km northeast.
Two weeks ago, al-Hourani and his family moved once more, paradoxically leaving the safety of a-Sanamayn for Jasim, still a rebel-held town currently under fire from land and air by regime forces.
The al-Houranis were not the only ones moving from the relative safety of regime areas for the bombardment of nearby rebel-held towns. Dozens of other families have returned to rebel-held Jasim in recent weeks, displaced by rents 10 times more than the pre-war rate for drafty, windowless houses more often “meant for raising cows and chickens” than for living in, al-Hourani tells Syria Direct’s Waleed Khaled a-Noufal.
The inflated rents leave families such as the al-Houranis with few options other than to return to a place that is affordable. What makes Jasim affordable, though, is the fact that it is under fire. Al-Hourani says he understands the price he could pay for the move.
Syrians “like me, who can’t get the money together” to pay higher living costs in regime-held areas “return to die by Assad’s barrels,” al-Hourani says.
Q: What drives internally displaced people in regime-held areas to return to rebel-held territories?
Rental prices are high in regime-held areas. A two-bedroom house with a kitchen and bathroom costs around SP20,000 per month (roughly $106).
: Before the war, a similar residence in the same area cost around SP2,000 per month, or about $10.60.]
Then there is the rounding up of young men by regime forces to serve in the army, as well as the arrests of old men, women and children [to place pressure on relatives fighting with rebel brigades].
Q: You mentioned that rents are high. Are homes furnished and fit to live in?
Most of these houses aren’t fit at all for living. Some of them weren’t used [as residences] before the revolution, and some were meant for raising cows and chickens.
Many of these residences don’t have windows, or have walls with openings that we cover with cloth or plastic.
Q: How are displaced people able to secure money for rent and daily living expenses?
Those, like me, who can’t get the money together, return to die by Assad’s barrels.
My children, my wife and I used to work [in regime-held a-Sanamayn] harvesting crops, putting ourselves in danger of [unexploded] mines, shells and barrels so that we could meet the requirements of life.
When we couldn’t do that [with the end of the harvest], we were forced to move to the rebel-held city of Jasim.
Q: Is there discrimination in those areas between the displaced people and original residents?
Yes, there is clear discrimination and sometimes mistreatment by the people of the areas which we fled to.
In a-Sanamayn, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent used to distribute aid only to the people from the city, and would refuse to give any aid to us.
Gas canisters are sold to displaced people for SP500 ($2.65) more than the regular price.
Q: How is life in Jasim, and how are the people meeting their daily needs?
Despite the bombardment and death, we are in a better state here. The rent is a lot lower and sometimes you can live for free if you have relatives or acquaintances.
I now work selling mazot [diesel fuel] and am able to provide what we need to live.