In early 2011, Ibrahim bought a small piece of land in the Bayader Nader informal settlement near Kafr Sousseh in Damascus. He built a small unlicensed house on the land, but was forced to flee the city because of his political activities against the regime. While he was gone, someone else seized his house and sold it. Then, the entire area became subject to rezoning as part of the second zoned real estate area in Damascus, established via Decree No. 66 of 2012. This area would come to be known as Basilia City. Ibrahim lost his house, and it is now difficult for him to claim his rights as laid out in Decree No. 66.
Ibrahim is originally from Deir-ez-Zor, and the 95-square-metre piece of land he bought in Bayader Nader was worth SYP 45,000 (about USD 1,000 in 2011). As with all informal settlements built on private agricultural land, construction is technically illegal — that meant Ibrahim had actually just purchased a share of the original agricultural property. This made Ibrahim merely one among dozens of shared owners of the property, most of whom were also from Deir-ez-Zor. Common ownership means there are two or more owners of one property — their individual shares are not subdivided, which makes them shared owners of a single piece of real estate. Agricultural lands like the one Ibrahim built his home on cannot be subdivided, nor the common property can be terminated. The only proof of ownership in such cases is through a notarised sales contract that specifies which share the buyer now owns. It may also include a statement specifying the location of the land, and a description of the property if there has been construction. In all cases, buildings constructed on lands that were sold in this manner, as well as sales of such buildings, are not formally recorded in the Land Registry.
The original owner of Ibrahim’s land comes from a family that works in contracting, construction and real estate, and some of the family members have good relations with influential figures in the regime as well as Hezbollah officials. According to Ibrahim, the family utilised these relationships to solve some complex real estate issues. When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, Ibrahim decided to build on his piece of land without a construction permit. Ibrahim took advantage of the municipality’s relative laxity in halting unlicensed construction during that time and benefitted from services provided to him by the owner of the land, who is also a contractor. Within just a few months, the contractor built a one-storey house with three rooms and a salon, as well as a kitchen and bathroom. The construction costs totaled SYP 700,000, which Ibrahim paid to the contractor. He also obtained electricity and water meters for the house.
Ibrahim’s story is not unique. During that same period, Ibrahim’s contractor built dozens of identical, unlicensed houses on small plots of land in Bayader Nader for dozens of people, most of whom were from Deir-ez-Zor like Ibrahim.
Ibrahim did not end up living in that house, as his opposition to the regime meant he had to leave Syria after he became wanted by the security services. In order to maintain the house while he was away, he leased it to someone he knew. Others from Deir-ez-Zor who had also built unlicensed houses in the area took similar measures.
In 2012, the Decree No. 66, was issued, which stipulated establishing two zoned real estate areas within the general plans for Damascus city. One of those zones, Basilia City, had an area of 954 hectares that included the Bayader Nader informal settlement. However, implementation of that zoned real estate area did not begin immediately due to ongoing battles on the ground.
Ibrahim’s contractor belonged at this time to the pro-regime National Defence militia and became a leader of its local group in Bayader Nader. Clashes approached the area in 2013-2014 as the opposition took control of the neighbouring Yarmouk camp and Al-Qadam areas. After making sure he was gone, the contractor evicted the tenant from Ibrahim’s house then leased it instead to one of his own acquaintances, taking advantage of the general chaos in the area. He did the same with other absentees for whom he had built previously unlicensed houses in Bayader Nader, by extorting its occupants and then leasing them to other people.
Ibrahim, who could not return to Syria, nevertheless discovered by chance in 2015, that someone from Idlib governorate had bought his house. When one of Ibrahim’s relatives visited the house, the occupant showed that they had a sales contract from the contractor, who was also the original owner of the agricultural land.
Because Ibrahim’s ownership is technically just a share on a commonly owned, non-subdivided property, it could be located anywhere on the original plot of land. This means that the extorter — in this case the contractor — can sell the same property over and over, so long as the sales contracts are not recorded in the Land Registry, and so long as owners like Ibrahim are unable to return and prove their ownership via the judiciary.
With the return of relative stability to the area, and after regime forces retook control in 2018, the Damascus governorate began work on the Basilia City project. This included preparation of large parcels of land, including parts of Bayader Nader, whose residents were evicted.
Under Decree No. 66 and the subsequent Law No. 10 of 2018 that amended it, real estate properties in Basilia City are distributed to rights holders after zoning via shares, according to the results of the work of the inventory and Description Committee. Those who owned agricultural land within the area and didn’t construct anything on it can receive financial compensation, to be set by the governorate, and this was the case of Ibrahim.
Ibrahim, was unable to find out what happened to his house, and whether it had been evacuated and removed, or it was still standing and being rented to strangers. His name was on a list for those entitled to receive only financial compensation — this is because he was a joint owner of a share of agricultural land before the zoning process. And because Ibrahim is wanted by the security services, he is afraid to return to Syria in order to claim his rights and prove via the judiciary that he owned an unlicensed house, a process that could allow him to obtain organisational shares in Basilia City.
Under Decree No. 66 the occupants of their own properties in the area before the zoning process can obtain these shares as well as the right to apply for alternative housing, albeit at their own expense. However, those who only owned their real estate without living on it are only entitled to organisational shares. Those who were occupants but did not own the real estate can apply for alternative housing.