The executive office in the Rural Damascus city of Darayya continues to remove buildings that it says are at risk of collapse, uninhabitable or that they pose a danger to passersby and residents. However, the demolition process has been marked by legal and administrative offences, raising concerns over possible violations of housing, land and property rights.
Darayya was the target of a punishing siege by regime forces from 2012 to 2016, ending with the forced expulsion of residents after entire neighbourhoods were flattened beneath aerial bombardment. The city was home to around 255,000 residents in 2007, according to official data, while today only about 25,000 people live there, according to local estimates obtained by The Syria Report.
Since a building collapsed in April, killing two people, the city council’s executive office has carried out a slow but steady campaign to demolish damaged structures.
According to the Local Administration Law issued within Decree No. 107 of 2011, local administrative councils elect the members of their executive offices, which exercise their powers collectively. The law prohibits any public or private entity from modifying or demolishing any existing building before obtaining a permit from the relevant executive office.
The executive office in Darayya announces the buildings it has slated for removal via its Facebook page, in order to inform the owners of the demolition orders. Several times, the executive office has posted photos of damaged properties and asked for help in identifying the owners, suggesting that the office lacks a database and certain real estate records.
It does not appear that the Darayya executive office has based its demolitions on Law No. 3 of 2018 (regarding the removal of rubble from buildings damaged by natural or unnatural causes or that are subject to various laws requiring their demolition).
Under Law No. 3 of 2018, a governor may issue a decision based on a proposal from the administrative unit determining the real estate zone and damaged buildings to be addressed, as well as setting the deadline within which local authorities must submit a detailed report on the status of these areas. After completion of the report, the governor forms a committee to “describe the damaged buildings and verify who owns them as well as the rubble.” The committee is headed by a real estate judge, while the other members include the head of the local surveying department, a real estate expert, a Cadastral Affairs representative and a residents’ representative. Among the committee’s tasks are making an inventory of the damaged buildings; verifying their owners; determining the structural status, extent of damage and structural safety; and issuing recommendations to demolish the buildings either partially or completely, or to leave them intact. However, this is not how the process has moved in Darayya.
Instead, the Darayya demolitions campaign appears to be erratic, with no legal controls governing which buildings are targeted. For example, if the office manages to make contact with the owner of a property slated for demolition, then the property is demolished in the owner’s presence at the municipality’s expense using municipally owned equipment. However, the rubble simply remains in place after demolition as it is considered private property, according to language used by the executive office. The property owner is the sole person authorised to dispose of it. In cases where the property owner is not identified or does not attend the demolition, then the rubble still remains in place. When a fixable defect is found in a building, then the owner is informed via Facebook and asked to repair the property at their own expense.
One example of the confusion and misunderstandings surrounding the demolitions: In July, the Darayya municipality decided to rehabilitate a 400-metre section of the sidewalk adjacent to the cemetery, at the direction of and with support from the Rural Damascus governorate. The mayor of Darayya said at the time that the large stones used for the new sidewalk had been collected from the rubble piles from demolished buildings. This is despite the fact that such rubble is legally considered to be the private property of the demolished buildings’ owners.
Sources in Darayya told The Syria Report that they were concerned by the large number of damaged buildings at risk of collapse, and felt uncomfortable with how the executive office was managing the demolitions. Some sources said that the demolition process was random and not applied equally across all buildings, without any clear criteria. The executive office reportedly may mark a building for demolition based solely on its outer appearance, without conducting a serious engineering study on its status or determining the degree of risk. In at least one case, complaints by neighbourhood residents resulted in the demolition of a building without the executive office having carried out an engineering study.
The executive office, however, has written on its Facebook page that it consults engineers before every demolition in order to make a proper decision. After confirming that a building is indeed at risk of collapse and that it poses a danger to the public, the office publishes a picture of that building so that its owners may reach out to the municipality. The office also wrote on Facebook that it issues reconstruction permits for demolished buildings free of charge.
Yet the executive office has never indicated that there exists a public safety committee to issue engineering reports on the structural safety of buildings slated for demolition. Such committees perform a number of duties, such as addressing structural safety issues in buildings. For such issues, it is up to the local administrative unit to seek help from the Engineers’ Syndicate or form its own public safety committee. The Darayya City Council does not appear to have chosen either of these options.
Finally, there is no mechanism in place in Darayya to compensate the owners of demolished properties for the losses incurred to them–especially in light of the fact that they weren’t responsible for the damages that necessitated the demolitions. Most buildings in Darayya were damaged by regime airstrikes during the period of opposition control.