AMMAN— A few civilians disembarked from an old bus that had just stopped in the western countryside of Damascus and continued their journey to Darayya, a city that has been pummeled into rubble by bombardment of government forces, on foot. The city has become the example of organized mass displacement in Syria after an extended siege.
August, in particular, brings painful memories with it to the people of Darayya. It was during this month that one of the largest massacres in Syria took place since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011. In 2012, after power and communications were cut off from the city, and its entrances and exits were closed, government forces and militias killed about 500 civilians.
On August 26, 2016, the Syrian government displaced thousands of Syrians living in Darayya to northwest Syria. Since then, green buses carrying the people of Darayya have become a symbol of all subsequent displacement, from southern and central Syria to opposition-held areas in the north.
Times of death, siege, and displacement continue to haunt the city even in times of the government’s control. While life is gradually returning to most of the areas that witnessed forced displacement since the government has allowed the return of internally displaced people (IDPs), Darayya still stands as a stark exception.
According to sources who spoke to Syria Direct, the people of the city are barred from entering certain neighborhoods. To go back to their houses, even for a short time, they have to go through a straightforward but precarious security and bureaucratic process.
Residents submit their names to the city council which lists their names and submits it to security services. Security services issue the final list that includes the approved names but "their folds are postponed or rejected for unknown reasons," Omar al-Ahmad, a displaced Darayyan, said.
Ahmed and Muath, brothers who both have lived in the same area of Darayya where they worked in car maintenance, highlight the ambiguity of civilian approvals to visit their city. Although both applied, Muath’s request was denied on the pretext that "the rubble and debris removal has not finished yet.”
According to Abdullah al-Dirani, a resident of Darayya, "the area that residents are allowed to enter does not exceed 10 percent of the total size of the city, and approval is only given after names are presented to the fourth division of the Syrian regime army.”
Life returns, only for one day
In August last year, the government promoted the return of the people of Darayya after securing the proper conditions and basic services necessary to resume normal life, the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported.
However, al-Ahmad recounted that the return that was promoted by official media only lasted one day. The real purpose was "to organize pro-government rallies and raise the regime’s flag on one of the main squares of the city." It was followed by a three-month ban, he added.
Now one year after the government announced the return of the people of Darayya to their neighborhoods, the city still only welcomes them as visitors. They enter some neighborhoods during the day but leave at night.
"No one remains in the city except for poverty-stricken people who have nowhere to stay and are burdened by rent” in areas of displacement, media activist Karim Abdulhaq, a member of Darayya's Coordination Committee, told Syria Direct.
The city’s neighborhoods that the government allows to be visited are engulfed by total darkness at night because of the complete lack of electricity and neighborhoods that are still completely closed turn into ghost towns at night.
"They are not accessible even to influential people and those close to power," Abdulhaq said.
The city is further isolated because of a lack of transportation network serving it. One bus, with a capacity of 24 passengers, is allowed to reach the area of al-Luwan between Darayya and Kafr Sousa neighborhood of Damascus.
"Those with influence and relations with the regime enter in their vehicles, but their numbers are small," the activist explained.
The government divided the city into several sectors and civilians can only enter two of them.
According to Abdulhaq, the city is divided into areas A, B and C, in addition to other parts that remain unnamed. He pointed out that area A, which extends from the entrance of Damascus to the area of Shamiyat, is the least devastated as the regime managed to control it after short fighting with the opposition militant groups.
“The rehabilitation and restoration that is being discussed in the media refer to this area,” he clarified.
“Area B is the one that complements area A and reaches Shraidi Square and Al Thawra Street,” he added. “This area was a direct area of contact between the government forces and the rebels, with a wide scale of destruction, but still habitable buildings.”
Area C was under the control of the rebel groups, which led to its complete destruction. It is not suitable for housing or even repair and requires complete demolition and reconstruction. No one is allowed entry, except senior officials, Abdulhaq said.
In addition, there are two more separate areas that are being scouted by companies close to the government, according to the media activist.
The first is the "Gulf Area" overlooking the Mezzeh Military Airport; it falls within the scope of the objectives of the Marotta Tourism project and is closed off as a result.
The second area extends from the so-called Sakina shrine to the Damascus-Daraa highway. It is alleged to be the shrine of Ali's granddaughter Sakina, a religious figure in Shia Islam. Because of this, the area has been open to Shiite delegations for religious tourism but closed to the people of the city. This land was licensed before the outbreak of 2011 to build residential and commercial towers and falls within the objectives of Sham Holding Network, according to Abdulhaq.
Following the control of government forces, ministries concerned with reconstruction, such as the Ministries of Public Works, Housing, Electricity, and others, conducted inspection tours under the pretext of drawing up plans to restore services to Darayya.
In September 2016, the Minister of Local Administration, Hussein Makhlouf, said reconstruction work in the city will take place in three steps. “First, it will start with clearing the rubble and debris from the streets, opening the roads, assessing damage to government facilities, assessing the level of work and rehabilitation requirements, as well as forming committees of various disciplines and construction safety committees to assess the possibility of retention or removal of buildings and unrealized construction safety,” he said.
Makhlouf pointed out that "part of Darayya can not be rehabilitated due to the great destruction suffered, and will be dealt with in the same way organizational project 66 of the area of the groves behind al-Razi."
According to the legislative decree (66) of 2012, two areas will be built; the first, southeast of Mazzeh behind Razi groves, dubbed project "Marotta City," and the second south of the southern ring road.
Looting in a time of peace
Salam, a woman from Darayya, told Syria Direct the story of her relative who served with the government forces and entered the city after his family was displaced.
Her brother-in-law hurried to his house in the city and was surprised to find his house standing tall, unharmed by the shelling. “Nothing was stolen...even the clothes were still hanging in the closet,” she told Syria Direct. The house remained intact and fully furnished although abandoned for four years.
After the “declaration of victory,” the army was asked to evacuate the city under the pretext of “clearing the area and clearing mines," Salam said.
They remained out of the city for two weeks and after they were allowed to enter it again, Salam's brother-in-law was shocked to find the house completely emptied. “Even the electricity wires are pulled from the walls!” she said.
After complaining to the nearby military checkpoint, he was told that "terrorists stole his things” and threatened that "mentioning this issue again will result in interrogating or even killing him."
Al-Ahmad supported Salam’s story, saying “in Darayya, there is no house that is left the same as it was. It is impossible for a family to return to their house and find it as it was. What was not destroyed by the war was looted."
"My family visited our house in the city several times, and to this day they have not received permission to renovate it. And in every visit they find it in worse shape; a broken wall or missing furniture" he said.
As the city council cited "its limited resources” as a reason for slow reconstruction," Abdullah al-Dairi attributes part of the official "negligence" to the government’s willingness to “punish the people of Darayya for taking part in the Syrian revolution.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh