When the Syrian revolution began in 2011, most residents of Al-Zahraa neighbourhood in Homs sided with the regime, many even joining the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia. The NDF subsequently made Al-Zahraa into a base for attacks on surrounding pro-opposition neighbourhoods such as Al-Bayadeh and Karam Al-Zeitoun, and harassed residents of Al-Zahraa, seizing many displaced people’s homes.
Situated in the eastern part of Homs, Al-Zahraa is an informal settlement which was built in the 1970s on agricultural land not meant for construction. A sizable minority of Sunni Bedouin clans historically from the area live in the neighbourhood, alongside an Alawite majority originally hailing from rural parts of the Homs governorate. Most Alawite residents of Al-Zahraa are low-income employees and workers in state institutions, as well as the security and military services.
The neighbourhood saw a blossoming leftist movement in the 1980s. It served as a hiding spot for members of the League of Communist Action (LCA) who were wanted by the security authorities. The LCA is a communist anti-regime movement active in the 1980s, whose members were primarily members of religious minorities, university students and members of the armed forces. Many members were subject to reprisals by the security services, torture and years of imprisonment.
Like most informal settlements in Syria, Al-Zahraa suffered from poor government services such as electricity, water, sewage, municipal services and healthcare. That began to change in 2011 as construction work picked up, spurred by NDF members who had become wealthy by looting the surrounding neighbourhoods. The government started to pay more attention to Al-Zahraa in response to the loyalty presented by its residents. Roads were paved, and transportation became better organised.
In December 2012, four Alawite female nurses were murdered, and their bodies were thrown in Al-Zahraa’s main public square. The NDF massacred 40 Sunni residents in retaliation. Remaining Sunni residents, as well as pro-opposition Alawite residents, subsequently fled the neighbourhood. The NDF was then able to extort the empty homes. Property extortion is the seizure of someone else’s property without their consent or legal basis for ownership or legitimate reason.
Souad, who comes from a Sunni family, lived at home with her mother when the revolution broke out. Their house was unlicensed and constructed by her father several decades previously. Though Souad’s father was already deceased at the time, he had been a volunteer in the Syrian army and old friends and colleagues surrounded their home from his army days. Fearing sectarian violence, Souad and her mother fled the house during the war. The NDF soon seized it. In 2015, she turned to the police for help recovering the home but later preferred to sell it at a lower price and live elsewhere.
Such harassment did not only target Sunni residents of the neighbourhood, but also Alawites who opposed the regime. Saeed, an Alawite man in his 40s, left his home in Al-Zahraa due to a dispute with NDF members after the 2012 massacre. Because of Saeed’s stance against revenge killings, people threw stones at his house. Fearing things could worsen, he left his home and rented a house in a nearby neighbourhood. Shortly afterward, the NDF allowed the family of one of its fallen fighters to reside in Saeed’s house.
Saeed managed to visit his house several times after the fighting ended in 2014 and asked the family living there to leave, to no avail, he told The Syria Report. It was only after he filed a complaint to the police, complete with documents proving his ownership of the house, that he could get it back. Because there are no proper title deeds for houses in informal settlements, ownership documents usually include notarised purchase contracts for agricultural land or shares and any available electricity, water and phone bills.
The property violations have even affected members of the NDF. Ali, who came from a Bedouin clan in Al-Zahraa, was affiliated with the NDF but was killed in a personal dispute with other Bedouin residents in 2013. His family received threats after the incident, telling them to leave the neighbourhood. They did so, moving to another part of Homs, and another NDF-affiliated family settled in their empty house.
In at least one case, an NDF officer on duty was also targeted. In 2014, security forces carried out a series of arrests on NDF members in Al-Zahraa, on numerous charges, including drug trafficking, theft, gang membership and kidnapping for ransom. The family of one of those arrested turned to an Alawite officer from Al-Zahraa to mediate for their son’s release. Because the officer refused to mediate, he was subject to intimidation tactics, including a bomb thrown at his home. In the end, he decided to flee the neighbourhood.