Despite various difficult-to-meet conditions they force on IDPs who wish to return to the city of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in Rural Damascus, Syrian authorities have pinned the low numbers of returnees so far solely on the wartime destruction of local infrastructure, including water, sewage and electricity networks. Schools and residential areas also faced damage on a wide scale. Authorities there are now seeking funding from international organisations for projects within the category of early recovery (ER) in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad to rehabilitate schools and infrastructure and remove rubble.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is the administrative centre of a district of the Rural Damascus governorate and is located next to southern Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. About half a million people lived in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad before 2011, with the city known to have the largest concentration of displaced Syrians from the occupied Golan Heights ever since the 1967 war. For this reason, there is an administrative overlap between Quneitra governorate and Rural Damascus governorate in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. Still, much of the city contains informal, un-zoned housing neighbourhoods without proper public services. These neighbourhoods have served as a destination for low-income Syrians from other governorates who want to move to the capital.
Regime forces wrought massive destruction on the city during the period of opposition control over the area from 2012 to 2015 and during Islamic State control from 2015 to 2018. The regime regained control of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in 2018 after waging a large-scale aerial and artillery bombardment campaign that destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forcibly displaced all remaining residents.
Last May, former governor of Rural Damascus said in a radio interview that the governorate must rehabilitate Al-Hajar Al-Aswad’s infrastructure before allowing displaced residents to return. He added that the governorate had so far coordinated with non-governmental organisations and rehabilitated 80 percent of the infrastructure in the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods. He added that the needs required for returnees to stay would be secured despite the governorate’s inability to completely rehabilitate the two neighbourhoods at this time. Tishreen and Al-Thawra are the only two neighbourhoods to which displaced residents have been allowed to return in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, while the other neighbourhoods remain destroyed. These two neighbourhoods were the least destroyed by city military operations, making rehabilitating them simpler.
The head of the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad city council said in another radio interview in July that the council is doing what it can to repair the city but does not have the proper machinery to remove the remaining rubble or tanks to secure water. He added that the Rural Damascus governorate sent some machinery for only 15 days last May after the governor’s visit and that workers were only able to remove some of the rubble during that time. According to the city council head, 2,100 families have applied to return home, of which 730 have been approved. The council has also granted 190 home restoration permits, though in reality, only 90 families have returned to live permanently in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.
The Rural Damascus governorate requires displaced residents to meet certain conditions before being permitted to return to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad’s Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods. They must fill out a form and then attach documents proving their ownership of the property to which they wish to return, in addition to a family ledger and copies of their and their family members’ ID cards. The security services then review their file and either grant or reject approval to return. If they are approved, a technical committee from the municipality then inspects the building and assesses any damages. If it is found to be safely habitable, the property owner must apply for a restoration permit from the municipality. After all that, final approval is given for them to return.
The city council head told the semi-official newspaper Al-Watan in July that the council had signed an agreement with Première Urgence Internationale (PUI) to fund the rehabilitation of a primary school in the Al-Thawra neighbourhood. And in late July the Rural Damascus governorate began rehabilitating the school, with work expected to be complete within two months, according to the contract with PUI. The council head said that UNICEF is also set to equip another school, but did not specify which one. Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), a relief organisation, has pledged to equip and rehabilitate the rest of the governorate’s schools in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.
However, the city council head did not mention the condition of schools run by the Quneitra governorate in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.
So far, returnees to the city have relied on solar energy, generators and batteries to obtain electricity, as the Rural Damascus Electricity Company has yet to install transformers due to logistical issues, according to official statements. The former governor of Rural Damascus gave a five-day deadline in late April for the company to install the transformers, which it failed to meet.
ADRA is also planning to install solar energy systems to run two water wells that the Rural Damascus Water Establishment previously dug. After the pumps are running again, they will likely be used to fill tanks to supply residents with water. The water and sewage networks remain damaged in all neighbourhoods of the city, including those once again inhabited.
The city council head added that the council had coordinated with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to maintain and replace the sewage line that passes through Al-Hajar Al-Aswad from the adjacent Al-Qadam neighbourhood to the Yarmouk camp sewage treatment plant. This line faced damage during fighting in the area and the regime’s siege of southern Damascus during opposition control. The ICRC also recently helped repair and restore sections of the same sewage line within the Yarmouk camp.
Finally, ADRA has also pledged to remove the remaining rubble, according to the city council head. The Syria Report could not confirm the locations of the rubble to be removed, the method of removal or which law would serve as the legal basis for the removal.