Demolished Properties and Exaggerated Returnee Numbers in Rural Homs
On May 24, the president of the Rastan City Council, in the northern part of Homs governorate, told the semi-official newspaper Al-Watan that work was fully underway to remove rubble, restore homes, and demolish buildings that are at risk of collapse. He also said that most people who had been displaced from Rastan had returned and that the necessary assistance was being provided to facilitate the return home of others, too.
However, the city council president provided exaggerated numbers of returnees and demolished homes, even overstating how much rubble had been cleared, according to local sources who spoke with The Syria Report.
Rastan is located along the Aleppo-Damascus international highway, some 21 kilometres from the centre of Homs city. The city was home to around 85,000 people in 2011. In early 2012, opposition forces took control of Rastan, and like other towns and cities across the northern Homs governorate, it came under a punishing siege for six years. During that period, Rastan faced heavy artillery fire and airstrikes that destroyed infrastructure, official government buildings, and civilian homes. In 2017, a census survey conducted by the opposition-run local council found that around 55,000 people were still living in Rastan, meaning around 30,000 had fled. A large portion of them were displaced to regime-held areas, while others left to seek asylum abroad.
In May 2018, the opposition in the rural northern part of the Homs governorate agreed to a reconciliation deal with the regime. The deal included expelling opposition faction members and any remaining civilians who did not wish to reconcile. Around 25,000 people were forcibly displaced as a result of the agreement and transported to opposition-held areas in northern Syria. After the implementation of the agreement, around 30,000 people remained in Rastan.
The city council president told Al-Watan that around 16,000 of an original 20,000 displaced people had returned to their homes in Rastan. According to a correspondent for The Syria Report in the area, the returnees were limited to those who had fled Rastan during the period of opposition control between 2012 and 2018. The correspondent added that many of those returnees had not come back to settle down permanently in Rastan, but rather to visit and inspect their properties in the city. Rastan has not yet been rehabilitated to the extent that returnees can resettle in the area, with most of its neighbourhoods still destroyed. In addition, the costs of restoring homes is far too expensive for most residents.
The city council president added that around 250 homes have thus far been restored by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). The restoration work included fixing doors and windows and providing water tanks. A committee of SARC volunteers in Rastan chose homes for restoration based on a set of criteria, the local correspondent said. For example, one criterion was that the owners of a given house are without a breadwinner, though taking into account the scale of damage to the home. However, observing the beneficiaries of the restoration work seems to indicate that the preferences of security and military officials were the most important factor in choosing which homes to restore. Additionally, the correspondent noted that in most cases the restoration work amounted to no more than providing three wooden doors and five aluminum window frames per house.
The city council president went on to say that the council had cooperated with Rastan residents to demolish around 100 destroyed homes that were at risk of collapse and a threat to public safety. However, the correspondent expressed doubt over the number reported by the president, suggesting that 100 was an exaggeration. The Syria Report was unable to independently confirm the precise number of demolished homes. According to the correspondent, the city council lacks the means and funding to carry out demolitions on such a scale, while residents themselves often incur these costs.
Finally, the city council president said that the council had cooperated with local actors to remove around 5,000 square metres of rubble, while the Military Construction Establishment had removed 10,000 square metres of rubble. According to the correspondent, the Military Construction Establishment had indeed removed the bulk of the rubble, while the contribution by the City Council was much smaller than stated.