Amman- In May of 2018, Hassan Adal watched as his friends and neighbors boarded buses to take them out of Southern Damascus. Their departure came on the heels of a cease-fire settlement between Russia and the Syrian government on one side, and local opposition forces on the other. Though he was tempted to join them, he decided to stay to preserve “the character of the area” in the face of what he saw as government-led demographic engineering.
Southern Damascus is made up of a diverse mix of people. Palestinians have historically populated Yarmouk Camp, a suburb of Damascus which sprung up in the 1950s to accommodate Palestinian refugees on the southern edge of Damascus.
However during the current conflict, Palestinians and displaced Syrians have dispersed to the various suburbs and towns in the area south of Damascus.
To the south of the former opposition stronghold of southern Damascus lies the town of Sayyidah Zaynab. The town has long been an important Shia pilgrimage site as the burial site of the prophet’s granddaughter, Zaynab. During the civil war the town become a base for Iranian and Iraqi militias and the launching point for many of their military operations against the area’s opposition forces.
Hassan Adal, who spoke to Syria Direct under a pseudonym due to security concerns, played an important role in an earlier set of negotiations in 2014 between the opposition based in southern Damascus and the Syrian government.
The negotiations took place while the government besieged the area, preventing humanitarian aid and basic supplies from entering the city. The besiegement policy, part of a “kneel or starve” policy of the Syrian government towards opposition pockets, led to dozens of residents dying of starvation.
The involved parties were eventually able to reach a settlement and the siege was lifted on the southern towns of Babeela, Yelda, and Baet Saham. The agreement was largely upheld by both sides, with some exceptions, until April 2018.
In April 2018, the government and allied forces launched an operation against ISIS in the Yarmouk camp and al-Hajar al-Aswad, a neighboring town. After government forces rooted out ISIS, they began to forcibly evacuate the cities, in addition to Babeela, Yelda, and Baet Saham. Approximately nine thousand residents were put on buses heading towards government-controlled territory in northwest Syria.
Government forces watch buses depart Southern Damascus. Source: SANA news agency.
The final southern Damascus settlement was a product of months of negotiations and several preceding evacuation deals between the opposition and the government.
Damascus tightens its grip
One year after the signing of the treaty, Hassan Adal describes how Syrian government policy has shifted from one of “reconciliation” towards “revenge.”
U.S. dollars to escape from government-control to northern Syria. Several residents and local activists detailed to Syria Direct how they utilized smuggler networks which developed during the civil war to make their escape.
Originally created to escape fighting and the government siege, smuggler networks have retained their importance as a means of resistance as the government re-imposes its control over Southern Damascus and Syria as a whole.
“A huge number of young men have been drafted to the regime army,” Adal said. “Everything that was promised in the settlement was a lie. There was no amnesty, no reconciliation. All of our demands remain unmet.”
Others are trying to adjust to the new reality which was imposed upon them. Those who have the financial means have paid huge sums to government officials in order to remove their names from “wanted lists.”
Those who can’t afford the bribes face the potential of “horrific forms of torture” in government prisons, according to Syria Direct’s sources.
Rami Sayed, a photojournalist originally from Southern Damascus who lives in the Der Balloot refugee camp in the countryside of Afrin, says that the situation is bleak in southern Damascus.
Sayed has tried to find out what exactly is happening in Southern Damascus through his friends who live in the area, but has heard of no new developments from them.
“A general lack of security, frequent arrests and detentions, proliferation of weapons, and legal anarchy in South Damascus has become the new normal.” He added that those who negotiated the peace settlement with the government have also been arrested.
Yarmouk Camp after the reconciliation deal
The government blockade of the opposition enclave in Southern Damascus ended with a reconciliation deal between the opposition and government forces.
However, though all the residents of Southern Damascus suffered through the siege together, the terms of the deal differed for those Palestinians who lived in Yarmouk Camp and the rest of the Syrians in Southern Damascus.
In the beginning of May 2018, Hay’at Tahreer Al-Sham (HTS), an Islamist group, began to evacuate Yarmouk camp along with Syrian civilians in accordance with the peace settlement with the government.
Groups of residents began to make their way to government-held territory in northern Syria in a population exchange of civilians from Kafriya and al-Fu’a, HTS-held towns in the Idlib province.
Palestinians by contrast, required a case-by-case approval from security forces to leave the region.
Today, the government imposes “brutal restrictions” on the Palestinian former residents of Yarmouk Camp, aimed at preventing them from traveling to Damascus.
Fayez Abu Eed, director of Action Group of Palestinians of Syria (AGPS), a London-based Palestinian human rights group operating in Syria, told Syria Direct that “if Palestinians want to leave Southern Damascus, the security forces must give them prior approval.”
“Many Palestinians want to travel to the capital in order to go to school or university, but first we have to present documents to state security and prove our loyalty to the Assad regime.
“We must prove to them that we have supported the regime and have been on ‘good behavior’ throughout the civil war.”
Today about five thousand Palestinian refugees remain in Southern Damascus. Most of them have been evacuated from Yarmouk Camp and are eager to return to their homes there as conditions remain difficult outside of their home city.
“The Palestinians who are now living in surrounding cities in South Damascus are having to pay rents that are much higher than what they’re used to,” Abu Eed told Syria Direct.
“Their rents are between 25 to 40 thousand lira a month (between $50 to $80). This cost-of-living is out of reach for many Palestinian refugees.”
Further, many of the landlords in surrounding cities require official contracts for tenants. Providing official documentation is often quite difficult for displaced Palestinian refugees, most of whom do not have Syrian citizenship, and has led to legal ambiguity for many refugees.
As a result, many Palestinians are living in the homes of other refugees who were able to find places to rent.
AGPS also told Syria Direct that a number of displaced Palestinians were arrested on Sunday by government security forces, despite their adherence to the terms of the settlement made with the government.
According to AGPS, the security forces claimed those arrested were deserters from the Palestine Liberation Army (PLA). The PLA in Syria, though originally the armed forces of the PLO, has become a military branch of Syrian government forces. Service in the Syrian PLA is mandatory for Palestinians in Syria.
This comes right after the coordinator of the UK-based NGO Jafra Foundation for Relief of Palestinian Refugees, Yasser Amayri, was arrested by government security forces in April. Three other Jafra employees were arrested as well, according to AGPS.
IDP’s facing legal confusion in Northern Syria
Residents traveling from southern and eastern Damascus faced an unforeseen challenge once they reached Northwest Syria: paperwork.
Under the opposition-controlled Syrian Interim Government, local councils were set up in order to cope with large numbers of Syrian IDP’s across opposition-held territory throughout the country. However, several sources have told Syria Direct that local councils have repeatedly refused to recognize a variety of public records, from birth to marriage certificates.
Palestinians specifically face difficulties when dealing with ambiguous legal regimes during the ongoing civil war, as they have unique documents from the rest of Syrians. They lack Syrian citizenship and as a result, have faced immense challenges while evacuating to North Syria from Yarmouk camp or Southern Damascus.
Many of the Palestinians heading to Northwest Syria neither possess official government documents nor UNRWA documents.
Last February, The Center for Documentation of Syrian Refugees was established by the Syrian Interim Government. Its mission is to assist in registration of IDP’s and refugees in opposition-held territory in Northwest Syria.
Since then, Palestinians in Syria have been able to begin registering with municipalities in the North of Syria and create basic public records, like birth, marriage and death certificates.
“I don’t regret leaving”
Upon arriving to northern Syria, refugees discovered crowded and substandard living conditions. Despite being under direct Turkish control, refugee camps were lacking essential services.
Residents suffered through a scorching summer and brutal winter whose rains often flooded camps and tents. Blame was generally placed on Turkey for not providing adequate services for refugees in the camps during intense weather conditions.
Children in Der Balloot camp on the outskirts of Afrin. Source: Rami al-Sayed
Still, Rami al-Sayed is glad he moved to the Der Balloot camp in Northern Syria from South Damascus.
“I have no regrets about leaving,” al-Sayed told Syria Direct. “I’d rather live in a refugee camp than under the Assad regime.”
“I have been to a regime prison, and it was a horrible experience, one that I’m not eager to repeat.”
According to Adam Shammy, a 30-year old father of two, the decision to leave was not an easy one to make. The moments leading up to his family’s departure was filled with introspection and deep contemplation.
Shammy told his wife that she was free to decide whether she wanted to make the journey to northern Syria with him or stay in her hometown. In the end she decided to come with him and their children.
“I don’t regret my decision at all,” Shammy told Syria Direct. “But I do feel like a stranger here and I miss home.”
“I miss the alleyways and the streets of my city. I miss the shelters we would take refuge in when there were bombings. We would sit together, not sure whether to laugh or to shake from fear.”
Ezz al-Deen al-Damashqi, a 25-year-old man from At-Tadmon who now lives in Der Balloot, told Syria Direct about his journey.
“Leaving was like tearing a tree up from its roots. I knew that I didn’t leave, if I didn’t tear up my roots, that I would end up wilting, wasting away.”
Damashqi was a painter during the years of government siege. He made it his personal mission to try to help the world understand what life was like in his hometown through his artwork. However, when he undertook the journey to Der Balloot, he had to leave behind dozens of his paintings.
“I belong back there, where father is buried, where my home is, my paintings,” Damashqi told Syria Direct. “Everything is back home.”