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Latakia authorities bulldoze homes, businesses in Palestinian camp, residents say

AMMAN: Syrian regime authorities in the coastal city of Latakia […]

16 November 2017

AMMAN: Syrian regime authorities in the coastal city of Latakia have reportedly demolished dozens of homes and shops in a former Palestinian refugee camp over the past two weeks, residents tell Syria Direct.

Since November 5, municipal authorities in the regime stronghold demolished dozens of makeshift homes, stores and at least half of a major beachside market facility once central to life in Latakia city’s Southern Ramal neighborhood, three residents told Syria Direct. Families who lost their houses are now reportedly left stranded, either moving in with relatives or simply sleeping outside at the city’s port.

The day that demolitions began, residents awoke to the sounds of loud “thumps” in the streets. “Everyone went outside, they were surprised,” said 26-year-old law student Mohammad Shaweish, who lives in Southern Ramal. What they found, Shaweish and others added, were bulldozers knocking down homes and businesses within the district’s outermost blocks to the ground.

“They started knocking down some of the small houses, houses that look like my own,” Abu Faisal, a 50-year-old father of three in the district told Syria Direct. He lives in a modest, one-story house that he built himself 25 years ago without government permission. Among the debris near his neighborhood this week were “a number of cafes, which served as a livelihood for their employees,” he said.

The Southern Ramal neighborhood on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Latakia News Network.

Southern Ramal sits directly along Latakia city’s southern coastline, on a strip of land that slopes down towards the Mediterranean Sea. The district was first settled as an informal encampment in the 1950’s by Palestinian refugees fleeing Jaffa and other coastal towns. Southern Ramal’s thousands of residents today live in makeshift homes that cropped up over the course of decades as the city absorbed the camp.

At least 10,000 registered Palestinian refugees currently live in Southern Ramal, according to UNRWA, though thousands of other residents—both unregistered Palestinians and Syrians—also call the district home. Many residents depend on fishing and construction work for a living. Drug addiction, inadequate housing and unemployment are listed as “major problems” within the district by UNRWA, the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency.

Resident Abu Faisal told Syria Direct this week that both he and his neighbors are fearfully watching as bulldozers moved closer and closer to their street over the past few days.

“Everyone is tense right now,” Abu Faisal said. “Basically, the government isn’t saying anything clear so that people can understand what’s going on.” He and other residents who spoke to Syria Direct alleged the demolitions came as a surprise, without prior warning or a satisfactory reason given by authorities.

When Diala al-Kanaan, a 27-year-old store employee in Southern Ramal, asked authorities last week why the demolitions began, “we were told that it was because there were non-regulation houses, that they needed to be destroyed,” she said.

Southern Ramal on Sunday. Photo courtesy of Latakia News Network.

After demolitions began last week, al-Kanaan left to visit relatives elsewhere in Latakia province. When she returned to check on her home, she says she found it turned to rubble. “I was shocked,” she told Syria Direct. “My childhood home was completely destroyed.”

Abu Faisal also heard from neighbors that regime authorities wanted to rid the area of “illegal” housing, he told Syria Direct from his still-intact home in the neighborhood.

Syria Direct reached out to a source within Latakia’s City Council on Thursday but received no response by time of publication.

Latakia News Network, a local pro-regime news page, published photos of the demolitions on Sunday, reporting that authorities tore down houses in the district in “cooperation between the Latakia City Council and the Ministry of Tourism,” the page reported. Syrian state media outlet SANA did not report the demolitions.

In 2011, Southern Ramal was a center of anti-regime sentiment and demonstrations in Latakia city, with weekly Friday demonstrations in the district.  

Just months into the uprising, however, government forces suppressed opposition in Southern Ramal by firing shells onto the district from tanks and military vessels stationed just off the coast. The Friday demonstrations ended and did not resume.

Today, Southern Ramal—and Syria’s regime-held coast in general—is largely insulated from the intense bombing and ground battles seen elsewhere in the country. One recent ad by Syria’s tourism portrays local beach resorts as “always beautiful” vacation spots.

But for the longtime residents of Latakia’s southern beachfront living in Southern Ramal, the overriding sentiment today is fear for the future of their homes as little information is shared to them of the demolition plans.

Law student and resident Mohammad Shaweish, told Syria Direct he is watching nervously as “outskirts” of the camp are demolished, wondering if his area could be next. “My own house is at the center of the camp, so nothing has happened to me yet,” he said. “But we don’t know if we’ll be able to sleep in our homes, or what.”

“Everyone who is living close to the demolition is afraid, especially those who live in old houses,” Abu Faisal added.

“I can’t tell you I’m not scared.”

With reporting by Maha al-Mohammad.

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