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The Hope to Return (Episode 4): Clinging to the land

Many houses have been destroyed, looted or confiscated by Turkish-backed armed groups in areas they seized during Operation Peace Spring. Similar acts have been carried out with impunity by a range of armed groups across Syria in recent years. Meanwhile, many displaced people have lost the documents proving that they own land or a house in their native towns and villages. What can Khedr, Amina and Zahra do to protect their property rights back home?

This is the fourth episode of “The Hope to Return,” a podcast series by Syria Direct.


7 August 2023

Many houses have been destroyed, looted or confiscated by Turkish-backed armed groups in areas they seized during Operation Peace Spring in 2019. Similar acts have been carried out with impunity by a range of armed groups across Syria in recent years. Meanwhile, many displaced people have lost the documents proving that they own land or houses in their native towns and villages. What can Khedr, Amina and Zahra do to protect their property rights back home?

This is the fourth episode of “The Hope to Return,” a podcast series by Syria Direct that follows the stories of three families displaced in 2019 by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

Four years later, tens of thousands of Syrians are still stranded in displacement camps and makeshift shelters across the northeast, unable to return, their houses destroyed, looted or occupied, and their land sometimes confiscated. As the years stretch on, they are torn between the hope to return home and the need to build a new life in displacement.

“The Hope to Return” was produced by Lyse Mauvais with help from Solin Muhammad Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team, including Mateo Nelson, Ammar Hamou and Natacha Danon. Illustrations are by Rami Khoury. The soundtrack is “Maldoc” by Little Rock. Instrumental transitions are performed by Kawa Kale from Yekpar, a group of Kurdish musicians displaced from Ras al-Ain. 

This episode is narrated in English by Lyse Mauvais and in Arabic by Omar Nour, with dubbing in English by Mateo Nelson (Khedr Khabour), Alicia Medina (Zahra) and Abdallah al-Shamaili (Ezzeddin Saleh). Narration for the Arabic version of this series was translated from the original English by Fatima Ashour.

Many houses have been destroyed, looted or confiscated by Turkish-backed armed groups in areas they seized during Operation Peace Spring in 2019. Similar acts have been carried out with impunity by a range of armed groups across Syria in recent years. Meanwhile, many displaced people have lost the documents proving that they own land or houses in their native towns and villages. What can Khedr, Amina and Zahra do to protect their property rights back home?
This is the fourth episode of “The Hope to Return,” a podcast series by Syria Direct that follows the stories of three families displaced in 2019 by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

Four years later, tens of thousands of Syrians are still stranded in displacement camps and makeshift shelters across the northeast, unable to return, their houses destroyed, looted or occupied, and their land sometimes confiscated. As the years stretch on, they are torn between the hope to return home and the need to build a new life in displacement.

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“The Hope to Return” was produced by Lyse Mauvais with help from Solin Muhammad Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team, including Mateo Nelson, Ammar Hamou and Natacha Danon. Illustrations are by Rami Khoury. The soundtrack is “Maldoc” by Little Rock. Instrumental transitions are performed by Kawa Kale from Yekpar, a group of Kurdish musicians displaced from Ras al-Ain.

This episode is narrated in English by Lyse Mauvais and in Arabic by Omar Nour, with dubbing in English by Mateo Nelson (Khedr Khabour), Alicia Medina (Zahra) and Abdallah al-Shamaili (Ezzeddin Saleh). Narration for the Arabic version of this series was translated from the original English by Fatima Ashour.

TRANSCRIPT:

(MUSIC)

(INTRO AUDIO: FIVE VOICES SPEAKING IN ARABIC)

LYSE MAUVAIS: Tens of thousands of Syrians are stranded in displacement camps in northeastern Syria, and thousands more live in makeshift shelters and abandoned buildings. Their houses back home have been destroyed, looted, or occupied. Their future looks uncertain.

This podcast follows three families torn between the hope to return and the need to build a new life in displacement.

This is “The Hope to Return,” a podcast by Syria Direct.

Episode 4: Clinging to the land

(AUDIO FROM WASHOKANI: SHUFFLING PAPERS)

MAUVAIS: Sitting on the floor of his tent in the Washokani displacement camp in northeastern Syria, Khedr sifts through a pile of carefully kept property deeds.

These papers prove that he and his relatives are the rightful owners of several houses and land in the countryside of the town of Ras al-Ain. Khedr left his home and his land behind in 2019 when he was displaced by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring, which we discussed in the previous episode.

Today, this pile of documents is Khedr’s most prized possession. But four years ago, he almost forgot them.

KHEDR AL-KHABOUR: Personally, when we left the house I was in a rush. I told the kids to get ready quick, and we left. My wife was the one who grabbed the bag where we keep all the important paperwork, our IDs and passports.

She told me: ‘Khedr, we need to get out of here alive but papers get lost.’ There were ownership documents, copies of records from the land registry—important things. If not for my wife, I wouldn’t have thought to get them.

MAUVAIS: Since that fateful night, Khedr’s dream has been to return home, to the land where his ancestors are buried and to the house where his children were born.

To realize that dream, he needs these pieces of paper. They are the keys to his former home.

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: During the war in Syria, around 13 million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, including five-and-a-half million who are refugees abroad. Many left their homes over the course of a few hours in the midst of an active conflict.

ZAHRA: The bombing started, everyone grabbed their children and left. We didn’t take anything with us. We didn’t take the family book, or the military service papers. Nothing at all.

MAUVAIS: Like Khedr, Zahra has been living in Washokani camp for nearly four years after she, too, was displaced by Operation Peace Spring.

But when Zahra lost her home, she also lost valuable documents. These documents proved her family’s ties to their land on the banks of the Khabour River. Without them, she may never be able to recover her legal rights over her home.

Helping people like Zahra is one of the goals of Hevdesti, a Syrian human rights organization based in Qamishli, northeastern Syria, that offers legal advice to displaced people.

(MUSIC)

EZZEDIN SALEH: Our main goal is justice for the victims.

MAUVAIS: That’s Ezzedin Saleh, the executive director of Hevdesti.

SALEH: We provide a platform for victims to be represented and defend their rights in court. We also document rights violations in northern Syria, and collect evidence, testimonies and documents in a central database. We want to contribute to accountability and justice processes around Syria, and to build the capacities of the victims of right violations and advocate for their rights.

MAUVAIS: We explained Zahra’s situation to him, and he gave us his opinion as someone working to preserve displaced people’s property rights in Syria.

SALEH: In Zahra’s case, she does not have any documents proving that she owns a house in her original village. This is a situation that puts the family’s property rights at great risk. If there are no property deeds, legally there is no ownership. So it is essential for this family and others to find a way to prove their ownership legally.

MAUVAIS: One thing Hevdesti does is help displaced people document their property rights over their former land and houses, so that they can return home one day. We asked Ezzedin what people like Zahra could do if they had lost all their papers, in order to have their rights over the land legally recognized.

SALEH: In all our projects with the displaced people we assist, we ask people to keep any type of evidence they have that can prove their connections to their property. This includes pictures of the house and the land, pictures taken inside the house during celebrations that prove they were living there, and testimonies from any witnesses who can confirm they owned the place.

MAUVAIS: This evidence can help the family prove they are the legal owners of the house in case anyone else tries to settle inside it in their absence. This is a major issue in Syria today.

SALEH: After 12 years of conflict, the appropriation of property is one of the main issues impacting Syrians, especially forcibly displaced people who cannot return to their areas of origin.

In many cases, these people cannot reclaim their property, which has sometimes been seized, destroyed or illegally occupied by those who do not want the families to come back. This is especially the case for Kurdish families in the areas of Ras al-Ain and Afrin, as a result of the military operations that took place in these areas. Property rights violations were committed on a large scale by Turkey and factions of the Syrian National Army supported by Ankara.

MAUVAIS: Violations of civilians’ property rights are not unique to Turkey and the factions it supports. They have been committed by all parties to the conflict. Across Syria, houses and land have been arbitrarily confiscated by armed groups. Sometimes, they are redistributed to others, often to prevent the original residents from returning to these areas.

These abuses are made easier by the fact that many displaced people left their houses without their property titles, don’t know how to protect their property rights, or only have incomplete legal documents.

(MUSIC)

AMINA AL-FARES: We had land we could live on, we owned a small shop next to the house. Most importantly, we had a house to live in. That’s the most important thing, having a house.

MAUVAIS: Amina’s family, who now lives in an abandoned mill in the countryside of Tal Tamar, owns two houses and 35 dunums of farmland back in their home village of Derdara. But the property deeds for those were misplaced long before the family fled. The land had been passed down for generations, and Amina’s family didn’t expect anyone would ask for these documents one day.

BRAHIM AL-FARES: This land is a legacy. It’s in the name of our family. But where the official papers are, we don’t know.

MAUVAIS: This is Amina’s father, Brahim.

BRAHIM AL-FARES: We do have some papers. For example there’s land we just bought, there’s a sale contract. [UNFOLDS PAPER] This is just in my name, this is a plot of land we bought and drilled a well on.

MAUVAIS: Today, all the family has is a single document: a sheet of A4 paper proving that Amina’s father recently bought 15 dunums of agricultural land. But according to Ezzedin from Hevdesti, even that document has limited legal value.

SALEH: In this case, the document the family has is a real estate registration statement. This document needs to be studied and analyzed by a lawyer or legal advisor familiar with Syrian law. The document only indicates that this property belongs to Amina’s father.

Since the father is alive and in Syria, the family needs to complete the legal procedures to obtain documents that prove ownership, such as a judicial declaration or any other document, whatever its legal degree, because the registration statement does not prove ownership. It will not be enough to prove their right to the land in court if there is a conflict.

MAUVAIS: This is a common issue across Syria. There are various types of ownership documents, which all have a different legal value. The most valuable type of property deed is the “green tabu,” which certifies that the owner of the land is registered in the Syrian land registry. Even if the green tabu itself is lost, the landowner can request a copy of his property deed directly from the central land registry.

But there are other documents, issued by Syrian courts and by notaries, or written sales agreements that are only signed between the previous and the current owner. Many people believe such agreements are property deeds, but actually they are only temporary contracts that must be certified in court in order to gain legal force and protect the rights of the owner.

Unfortunately, the lack of awareness among many displaced Syrians regarding the legal value of their documents raises many concerns for the future.

(MUSIC)

SALEH: We expect that this will have catastrophic effects on the future of Syria, because some of these documents are very easy to forge. Many families in Syria have lost their properties because they were seized by other people using fake documents, or by paying bribes in courts. If the real owners of property don’t have the documents proving their property rights, or if the original documents are not in the records of the Syrian government, then they risk losing their property in court.

MAUVAIS: Property documents that are not directly registered in the land registry, like simple sale contracts, can easily be forged or overridden in court. But stronger documents, like green tabus, offer better protection for people because the originals are kept in state records. Therefore, Ezzedin advised all displaced people to check the validity of their property deeds with a lawyer to understand what the documents mean, and if any steps are necessary to better protect them.

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: But even those who have kept all their property documents and are aware of the need to protect their rights are struggling to preserve them. Khedr, for example, has meticulously kept all the documents proving that he owns land in Ras al-Ain. This includes land belonging to his siblings and his father, who all emigrated to Europe and entrusted Khedr with taking care of the family’s land.

Ezzedin, from Hevdesti, comments on his situation.

SALEH: He has a general power of attorney, title deed, and papers related to the use of agricultural land. These documents were issued by the official institutions of the Syrian government in Serekaniye, but they may not be in the real estate registry of the Hasakah governorate. In 2012, when the Syrian opposition factions were fighting the government, the court was burned.

All civil documents and real estate registry documents were burned. Therefore, documents that were registered after 2012 have a legal root in the government record. But in Khedr’s case, they are from before 2012. Often, we cannot find the legal origin of these documents in the court records. This means that if Khedr’s documents were lost or damaged, he will not be able to have a replacement issued.

MAUVAIS: So although Khedr has carefully kept all his documents, the originals that were kept in the land registry have likely been destroyed during the war. Thousands of documents held in local civil and land registries were burned or went missing over the course of the war. In many cases, families have kept their own copies, but these too could easily be lost or destroyed.

AL-KHABOUR: I have these documents, but many tents in the camp have burned down over the years. I put these papers in a bag, and for a while I kept them in my car, but then I changed my mind and kept them in the tent. I don’t know where to put them, honestly.

MAUVAIS: As one of the last members of his family still in Syria, Khedr sees himself as the custodian of his family’s land. He cannot leave it behind, or at least he must do everything in his power to get it back. For this reason, he refuses to leave the country and seek a better life abroad, for example by moving to neighboring Iraq where some of his adult children live.

AL-KHABOUR: My parents and relatives all left the country, but I stayed to watch over the land. I have land, I have projects here I can’t abandon. Because one day, Germany could tell us to go back. Recently we’ve heard that in Europe they are trying to return foreigners to their country. So I wanted to stay in my house, on my land, the land of my father and grandfather. Because of this, I didn’t go.

MAUVAIS: For now, going back to his home in Ras al-Ain, which is controlled by Turkish-backed armed factions, is too dangerous. But he clings to the hope of returning home.

Nearly four years have passed since Operation Peace Spring with no solution in sight. And more than 12 years after the start of the Syrian conflict, hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians like him are still stranded in camps across the country.

In the next, and final, episode, we will talk about the future of Amina, Khedr and Zahra. What are their hopes and dreams? How are they trying to rebuild their lives? And what is the future of the camps, built as temporary homes, that are slowly but steadily becoming permanent?

(MUSIC)

MAUVAIS: This podcast series was written and produced by me, Lyse Mauvais, with help from Solin Muhammed Amin and Syria Direct’s editorial team.

Instrumental music for the soundtrack is performed by Kawa Kale of Yekpar Group, a group of musicians from Ras al Ain now displaced to Qamishli in northeast Syria.

You can find the following episodes on our website, syriadirect.org, and on all main podcasting platforms.

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