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Syrian government forces returning displaced persons to pay for services they never received

AMMAN—Months after returning to her home in west Damascus, Samira Muhammad (pseudonym) is surprised to learn that she is indebted to an electricity company for several years of bills while she had escaped the government’s siege and shelling in 2013. Many families returning home to the western Damascus countryside and southern Syria are facing the same problem.

16 September 2019

By Marwa Muhammad

AMMAN—Months after returning to her hometown of Muadamiyat al-Sham in the western Damascus countryside, Samira Muhammad (pseudonym) still feels paralyzed by the challenges she faces to restore her home. In addition to the cost of repairs, which she was barely able to afford with the help of her relatives and friends, Muhammad was surprised to learn that she is indebted to the electricity company for several years of bills while the electric service had been cut off permanently.

Muhammad, who is now 29 years old, escaped the government’s siege and shelling in 2013, when Muadamiyat al-Sham became an opposition stronghold. The government and its allied militias retook control of the area after heavy bombardment in 2016, which compelled the opposition militant groups to sign an agreement that led to the exit of their fighters. 

Nonetheless, Muhammad has not been able to “return to a stable life and get rid of the burden of rent [in Damascus] that has exhausted me for years,” she told Syria Direct, because she cannot get electricity to her house until she pays the SP270,000 ($428) in accumulated bills. 

She could not find any explanation for these bills since electricity services to her house were cut off during the regime’s siege of the city. Her inability to pay for the services she never received has more consequences than just barring her from access to electricity in the future. “Overdue bills for utilities also disrupt other services, since any debt to one utility company must be resolved before other utilities are restored,” she said. 

Many families returning to their homes in the western countryside of Damascus and southern Syria, now under government control once again, face the same problems. 

Shadia al-Muadamani (pseudonym), 32-years-old, and also from Muadamiyat al-Sham, was forced to pay SP165,000 ($262), to the electricity company for “services” she didn’t receive while the city was under siege. She would not be able to receive water and electricity services, or any other services provided by the government facilities, without paying the fee. 

The restrictions appear to be even tighter for government employees returning to their homes and jobs, according to Abu Seif al-Zayed, a government employee who recently returned to his home in Kherbet Ghazaleh in the southern Daraa province. 

Zayed told Syria Direct that he was unable to be restored to his position until after he had paid his bills for services that he never received as well. 

The government recently allowed the people of Kherbet Ghazaleh to return to their homes in mid-2018, after nearly five years in exile. The town has been devoid of residents since the government captured it in 2013 and turned it into a stronghold for the government’s armed forces.  

The citizens compensate the state for its losses 

The government forces and allied militias retook vast swaths of territory in central and southern Syria in 2018, including eastern Ghouta, southern Damascus, and the southern provinces of Quneitra and Daraa. 

Damascus has taken advantage of these developments to advocate for an end to the conflict and promote the return of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees to their homes. The current situation, however, reveals a government deficiency that could lead to a deepening economic crisis.

Areas under government control have witnessed increased discontent as a result of increasing rationing of services like electricity. This comes at a time when many residents expect the opposite since the government has been promising to improve services, as the military operations are decreasing and the government has regained control over oil and gas wells it lost in past years.

In addition to the losses suffered in Syria’s electricity sector, which were estimated at $4 billion according to the Russian Sputnik News Agency, the government’s control over vast areas of land and the sanctions imposed by the EU and the US have combined to deepen the economic deficit faced by the Syrian government. 

As the government in Damascus continues to ration electricity in areas under its control, pro-government news sites have reported that the issue faced by Samira, Shadia, and others returning home is rooted in the electricity company’s method of assessing fees. The electricity corporation collectors assess fees once every several months, resulting in bills that are higher than they should be for people whose homes were vacant.

As a result of the poor service situation in government-controlled areas, Samira was unable to secure the requirements of daily life or to escape the fees imposed by the government, especially after her husband was disabled after suffering a stroke. “I must bear all these burdens on my own,” she said.

This article was written as a part of Syria Direct’s Connecting Communities through Professional Engagement Project in partnership with the Australian Embassy to Jordan’s Direct Aid Program.

The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Calvin Wilder

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