A street in Khirbet Ghazaleh last week. Photo courtesy of Khirbit Ghazalah.
AMMAN: For the first time in nearly five years, Shadi Abu Rami is walking through the hallways of his gutted home in the town of Khirbet Ghazaleh near the Syrian-Jordanian border.
The furniture and electronics are all gone—stolen, like everything else of conceivable value. Thieves have pried away wooden doors and window sills from the bedrooms and guest rooms, and there are deep gashes in the cement walls where scrappers have torn out the lead piping and copper wires behind them.
“Honestly, I don’t even know where to begin fixing things,” the 41-year-old father of four says. “All that’s left here are the walls.”
Nearby, Abu Rami’s neighbors have not fared better. Many houses have collapsed—either from bombardment or vandalism—and those that remain intact have also been looted and stripped.
Sources on the ground say that hundreds of former Khirbet Ghazaleh residents began returning to their abandoned homes late last week after government authorities allowed displaced Syrians into the town for the first time in nearly half a decade.
But as closed door negotiations between rebels and government representatives about Khirbet Ghazaleh’s future continue, returnees now face the prospect of starting over again in a gutted town where even the most fundamental infrastructure, including water and electricity, is missing.
“Just about everything is different—from the streets to the houses,” Abu Rami tells Syria Direct, describing a scene like one “taken from a film.”
The last time Abu Rami saw his home was in 2013, when intense battles between rebels and government soldiers reached the outskirts of Khirbet Ghazaleh. As government warplanes targeted rebel positions inside the town and Syrian army soldiers prepared to assault, almost all of Khirbet Ghazaleh’s 40,000 residents fled in a matter of days.
“We figured we’d wait a few days until the battle ended, then we’d go back,” Abu Rami remembers.
“Unfortunately, a few days turned into five years.”
Khirbet Ghazaleh last week. Photo courtesy of former resident who requested anonymity.
With almost all of Khirbet Ghazaleh’s residents living in exile, the Syrian government converted the strategic town—which falls along the main highway connecting nearby Daraa city with Damascus—into quarters for Syrian troops.
With Khirbet Ghazaleh under Syrian military control and billeted by soldiers, large earthen berms and trenches appeared on the outskirts of the city as government forces dug in. Civilians like Abu Rami—unable to return home—heard almost no news from inside the town for years.
Residents instead took to relying on satellite images—updated every few months on free programs like Google Earth—to peer behind government lines and into the neighborhoods they’d lived in all their lives, Syria Direct reported in 2016.
At the time, it was the only way to see whether a house was damaged or flattened, residents explained.
In mid-June, the Syrian government and its allies launched a massive aerial and ground assault on rebel-held territory in the country’s southwest. Within weeks, pro-government forces had recaptured almost the entirety of Daraa and Quneitra provinces through a combination of military force and a patchwork of locally brokered reconciliation deals.
With rebels defeated in Daraa province, an active frontline no longer separated tens of thousands of Khirbet Ghazaleh residents from their homes.
For Abu Rami, home was now just a short trip away.
‘The road home’
Early Wednesday morning, one of Abu Rami’s relatives called him on the phone. The Syrian government was allowing visits to Khirbet Ghazaleh.
“He told me the road home was open,” Abu Rami says. “That they were going to let us visit home.”
Abu Rami jumped on his motorbike and left the apartment he rents with his family in the nearby village of al-Ghariya, some 10 kilometers away from Khirbet Ghazaleh.
Visiting along with several hundred other former residents from the town, Abu Rami’s return on Wednesday was capped at three hours—a limit imposed by local government authorities there, he tells Syria Direct.
By Wednesday afternoon, photos and videos of destroyed buildings and looted homes flooded pro-opposition social media channels. In one video shared with Syria Direct, a Khirbet Ghazaleh returnee enters his home to find burned masonry that has been stripped of metal piping and copper wiring.
Several residents tell Syria Direct that they returned to find their homes ransacked and stripped of wiring and plumbing. The following video sent to Syria Direct shows a former resident returning home to find that his home was looted and squatters had moved in pic.twitter.com/HSn6y9jxe5— Syria Direct (@SyriaDirect) July 19, 2018
“They took everything—there’s nothing left,” the man says from behind the camera.
Though many Khirbet Ghazaleh residents returned to the burnt out shells of their former homes, others found only rubble.
As many as 120 homes and 30 farms in Khirbet Ghazaleh have been destroyed, according to the pro-opposition Khirbit Ghazaleh Facebook page, a media collective formed of local Daraa activists.
Local infrastructure has been decimated. There is no running water or electricity in Khirbet Ghazaleh, former residents and activists tell Syria Direct, and none of the town’s hospitals or schools are in service.
For many, there is little to return to.
‘Nothing is guaranteed’
Mustafa Salah Abu Hamza, a 41-year-old geography teacher, returned to his neighborhood in Khirbet Ghazaleh to visit the ruins of his bombed-out home.
“I went home, but I knew what I’d find,” Abu Hamza tells Syria Direct. “A relative showed me pictures of my house on the internet—it’d been leveled.”
Abu Hamza’s home in Khirbet Ghazaleh lies in the town’s western neighborhoods near the international highway—the site of intense battles between rebels and government forces during the 2013 fight for the town.
“Just about every house in my neighborhood is destroyed,” Abu Hamza says. “If a house isn’t totally leveled, it’s at least too damaged to live in.”
Returning permanently to Khirbet Ghazaleh isn’t an option Abu Hamza is ready to consider, he tells Syria Direct. Rebuilding his house is financially prohibitive without government assistance or reparations, and the lack of a final political solution makes relocating there a risk.
Syria Direct contacted several local activists and rebel officials in Daraa close to the ongoing negotiations over the future of Khirbet Ghazaleh. They described ongoing—but closed-door—negotiations, and little else.
The uncertainty about what negotiations may yield is keeping some former residents away who say the lack of a concrete political solution makes relocating there a risk.
“Even if my house still stood, I wouldn’t go back before [the government] announced a deal,” Abu Hamza says. “Maybe they’ll turn around tomorrow and kick everyone out again—nothing is guaranteed yet.”
Securing the basics
Another former resident, Ahmad al-Haj Ali, didn’t dare to be among the first returnees to his hometown last Wednesday. The 24-year-old waited a day before sneaking into town with a group of female relatives.
Moving around in the city is a challenge, al-Haj Ali says. The roads are pockmarked with craters and tall weeds grow from deep gashes in the concrete.
“What hasn’t been destroyed is burned, and what hasn’t been burned is looted,” he says.
When al-Haj Ali saw his home he fell to his knees and prayed, he tells Syria Direct. A fire had ripped through half the house and thieves had stolen everything, “even the windows and doors,” he says.
But al-Haj Ali is one of the luckier returnees to Khirbet Ghazaleh. Though their home is looted, the family is already working to rebuild their lives in their hometown. Over the weekend, they started removing the trash and debris that had collected inside their home and cleaning the burn marks off the walls.
There is little in the way of infrastructure or a concrete political solution for the returning residents of Khirbet Ghazaleh. But families like al-Haj Ali’s are working to secure the basics to rebuild what was once a home.
“We’re all going to live on one side of the house while we fix up the other half. Afterwards we’ll put up the doors and windows and work on the plumbing,” al-Haj Ali explains.
“Thankfully, we’ve got the money to rebuild.”