Scavenging for and recycling rubble appears to have become a booming trade for looting crews in damaged areas, where security forces have restricted access from most residents hoping to return home. This is especially the case in Damascus’ Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp.
According to The Syria Report’s local correspondent, Deir Yassine, Al-Aroubeh and 15th Street are the areas of the camp most impacted by the looting. Crews of fewer than ten workers each carry out the looting with light machinery, picking apart roofs and columns to extract iron. These teams enter the camp regularly via checkpoints operated by Military Security, one of the country’s four main security services, on Al-Thalatheen Street. They are allowed access through security permissions issued by the Fourth Division that grant them the freedom to enter and exit the camp.
Most of these workers are day labourers employed by scrap traders. They collect scrap taken from the rubble in different parts of the camp, especially Deir Yassine and 15th Street, similar to the looting process in neighbouring Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, a city just outside Damascus. Afterwards, traders take the scrap out of the camp and pass through the security checkpoints to iron smelting factories in Rural Damascus.
In general, the looting crews divide the camp amongst themselves, so each crew gets a sector of buildings. Aside from these professional work crews, groups of less organised, self-employed workers also hunt for scrap, gather iron, and loot homes. These workers pay bribes to personnel at the security checkpoints that allow them to enter the camp. They often attack residents wishing to check on their properties, hitting them with rocks and sticks to scare them from returning.
Eyewitnesses told The Syria Report that the looting, demolitions and iron extractions also target undamaged and habitable buildings. Sometimes the looting teams demolish columns on ground storeys, causing the buildings to collapse and making it easier to extract iron from the rubble. These demolitions have killed some looters in recent years in the Jobar neighbourhood of Damascus and Al-Hajar Al-Aswad.
The demotions have also, at times, affected buildings in the camp that had already been restored from wartime damage. Abu Ahmad, a Yarmouk resident, told The Syria Report that he had been working to regain his apartment on the second storey of a building near Al-Madares Street to move back home. However, he recently found that the stairwell of his building had been completely demolished and the iron extracted from it, making it difficult to reach the second storey.
Salma, another resident, said she had obtained approval to return to her house in Yarmouk, which was still habitable. She spent her family’s savings rehabilitating the home and installing windows and doors, only to find that looters had dismantled and stolen everything.
The looting comes amid an unclear announcement by the Damascus governor in January calling on residents and homeowners to visit the Yarmouk Services Department to remove their collapsed homes and to demolish their homes if they are at risk of total or partial collapse. The announcement did not clarify what exactly was demanded of these residents, i.e. whether they would be responsible for removing the homes themselves or whether the Yarmouk Services Department would undertake the task.