Returns to the city of Darayya in Damascus’ West Ghouta area remain selective and partial, amid a lack of basic public services. However, it seems that even these limited returns have become a major factor for funding service rehabilitation in the city, as authorities depend on aid and donations from returning residents for funding in return for allowing returnees to repair their private properties.
Darayya was the target of a punishing siege by regime forces from 2012 to 2016, which ended in the forcible displacement of the entire population after entire neighbourhoods were bombed to the ground. In August 2018, the Damascus Countryside governorate announced that residents would be allowed to return to Darayya on condition they submit documents proving ownership of property within the city and obtain prior security approval. Partial returns subsequently began in mid-2019.
Darayya had a population of around 255,000 people in 2007, according to official statistics. The gradual return of services has quickened the pace of returns, with 80,000 returnees, according to mayor Marwan Obeid. He added that cooperation between the local community and economic actors in the city had led to the return of many public facilities and services.
However, a correspondent for The Syria Report in the area cited local estimates that only around 25,000 residents have returned to Darayya. Rubble has still not been completely removed from the city, as residents either pay bribes to municipal workers to remove debris from in front of their homes or remove the rubble themselves at their own expense, the correspondent added.
The Minister of Finance and the governor of Damascus Countryside visited Darayya in mid-June to inspect rehabilitation work on the temporary Finance Directorate building and the directorate of Cadastral Affairs. The temporary Finance Directorate building is owned by the Darayya municipality, and the repair work on it is funded by the city council and residents’ donations. During the visit, the Minister of Finance stated that community and civil cooperation contributed to the return of many public facilities and services in Darayya, such as schools, the health centre, the telephone exchange, the automated bakery, the court, and the city council. The Damascus Countryside governor added that it was important for more effort and cooperation on the ground between the business community, the governorate, and residents in order to continue restoring the city’s public services.
Official statements’ focus on cooperation between the local community and businesspersons on the one hand, and state institutions on the other, to repair public services indicates a lack of official funds for rehabilitating the destroyed city. For the rehabilitation of official buildings and the removal of debris, the city council has depended to a large extent on financial contributions from wealthy residents and merchants, or on donations of construction materials and machinery. In return, the city council has facilitated granting these benefactors construction permits to conduct restoration work on their private plots. In September 2019, the city council announced it had formed an independent committee to gather donations for reconstruction work.
However, Darayya still lacks most basic services, such as electricity, water, sanitation, cleaning, and transportation, after the city’s infrastructure was devastated during the war. The electricity rationing programme in Darayya means more than 23 hours of power outages per day, which interrupts drinking water pumps.
In May 2018, the Ministry of Public Works and Housing announced that its technical committee had finished drawing up new zoning plans for Darayya. The ministry’s director of urban planning at the time told pro-regime newspaper Al-Watan that under the new plan, Darayya had been divided into four districts, including residential, services, and investment zones. The new zoning plan for Darayya comes as part of a larger vision for the second so-called real estate development zone in Damascus, set up under Decree No. 66 of 2012. The zone is known as Basilia City, and in addition to Darayya, also includes parts of the Mazzeh, Kafr Sousseh, Qanawat Basatin and Qadam real estate zones.