Some 20 families returned to the town of Bassimeh in the western countryside of Damascus
, last week, state-run news agency SANA reported, adding that the returnees had begun removing rubble from their houses to make them fit for living.
Bassimeh belongs administratively to the Qudsaya sub-district, which in turn belongs to the Qudsaya district alongside the Dimas and Ayn Al-Fijeh sub-districts. Those two sub-districts were added to the Qudsaya district in accordance with a zoning decree issued in 2009; they previously belonged to the Zabadani district. The area encompassing most of Qudsaya and Ayn Al-Fijeh sub-districts, which surrounds the Barada River, is popularly known as Wadi Barada. Crucially, the area contains the Al-Fijeh Spring, which is the main source of drinking water for Damascus and part of the surrounding countryside.
Most villages and towns in Wadi Barada were under rebel control from 2013 to 2017, when a regime military campaign to retake the area forced all residents to flee Bassimeh, Ayn Al-Khadra and Ayn Al-Fijeh. Residents of other nearby towns were partially displaced.
The governor of Damascus Countryside announced in mid-April that IDPs would begin returning to Bassimeh, as work had been completed to prepare water, sanitation, and electrical infrastructure. For his part, the mayor of the town of Jdeidat Al-Wadi, which is next to Bassimeh, announced that the returns process would proceed smoothly and in an orderly manner for residents with the “necessary documents to enter”. He added that around 800 people had entered the village to check on their homes. Bassimeh was home to about 2,800 people based on the 2004 census.
The “documents” required for entry include proof of housing, proof of water, electrical and phone bills for the past years, and security approval. However, many displaced people are unable to obtain security approval due to suspected opposition political activities either by themselves or their family members.
There have been contradictions in the government’s handling of returns to Wadi Barada, especially the towns of Bassimeh, Ayn Al-Khadra and Ayn Al-Fijeh. Three different official proposals have surfaced in the local media in recent years concerning the fate of the area and its displaced former inhabitants.
The first proposal is to link returns with the preparation and rehabilitation of local infrastructure. The second is to link returns to the issuance of official zoning plans for the towns and villages in Wadi Barada. Finally, the third is to link returns with the approval of an alternative housing project for owners of expropriated properties in what is now a protected zone around the Al-Fijeh Spring. However, there is disagreement between the Damascus Countryside governorate and the Ministry of Water Resources over where to build the alternative housing.
The second and third proposals overlap, as the issuance of new zoning plans for Wadi Barada is tied to two issues. The first is a report on the scope of expropriations carried out in the area under Law No. 1 of 2018, which concerned the establishment of a protected zone around the Al-Fijeh Spring. The second is determining the area to be set aside for the alternative housing project–dubbed the “Wadi Barada Suburb”–for owners of properties expropriated from the protected zone, or those whose homes have been destroyed due to fighting in the area. Since August 2020, the General Company for Engineering Studies (GCES), which is affiliated with the Ministry of Public Works and Housing, has been tasked with preparing plans for the suburb, which will be located between Bassimeh and the town of Al-Dreij. Law No. 1 of 2018 resulted in the expropriation of around 165 hectares of land around the Al-Fijeh Spring and the two water tunnels branching out from the spring to Damascus.
In any case, it is unclear why there is a sense of confusion on the part of the government over handling returns to Bassimeh and other towns in Wadi Barada. Allowing some families to return to Bassimeh seems a surprising move, given that none of the previous conditions for return have been met, including preparing the town’s infrastructure, issuing new zoning plans, or providing plans for alternative housing in the so-called Wadi Barada Suburb.
Removal of rubble in Bassimeh