The Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in the Rural Damascus Governorate stopped working on real estate records in Arbeen during the period of opposition control over the city in 2012. With the resumption of the directorate’s work in 2019, it was clear that many real estate registries had been lost or damaged. To fill this void, the Real Estate Documentation Office at the time worked to re-register those records, even while the Syrian opposition possesses a copy of the pre-2012 documents.
In East Ghouta, where Arbeen is located, there are three directorates of Cadastral Affairs: one in Douma, one in Arbeen, and one in Al-Mleiha. Each of the three districts has its own Real Estate Documentation Office. The office in Arbeen contains real estate records for the cities and towns of Arbeen, Al-Eftris, Beit Sawa, Hamouriyeh, Zamalka, Saqba, Ain Termeh, Kafr Batna, Jisreen, and Al-Muhammadiyeh.
In September 2019, the Director of Cadastral Affairs in Rural Damascus told the pro-regime Al-Watan newspaper that 310 out of a total 898 original real estate registries from the Arbeen office were missing. He added that work was underway to gather the lost documents as part of the implementation of Law No. 33 of 2017, which regulates the restoration of partially or completely damaged land registries. However, he did not specify when work would be completed, as there were “a great number of missing real estate documents.”
The Ministry of Local Administration and Environment issued Decree No. 5 of 2019 to restore damaged or missing real estate documents in accordance with the provisions of Law No. 33 of 2017. After the committees formed under Decree No. 5 finish gathering the documents, an administrative decree will be issued to approve the new registries. If the gathering goes uncompleted, the issue will be referred to the judiciary.
A legal expert from Arbeen told The Syria Report it was likely that the delays were caused by the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs taking on two major real estate tasks at the same time: digitising the Land Registry and restoring lost or damaged real estate records. According to the source, the overlap between the two endeavours, as well as the massive scale of lost registries and lack of clarity surrounding the implementation mechanisms, led the Arbeen office to redo the Delimitation and Census of some properties. Delimitation is the process of determining the borders of a property on the ground in the presence of a judge and marking those borders with clear signs. Census or Demarcation, on the other hand, is the creation of a document displaying the status of the property and opening a Land Record for the property within the Land Registry. A return to Delimitation and Census means a return to the first steps of any real estate documentation process – all this amid great dangers to ownership rights in Syria related to the scale of recent destruction, eradication of property boundaries, and mass absence of forcibly displaced property owners.
On the other hand, after withdrawing from Arbeen in July 2012 regime forces bombed some governmental and official sites in the city, including the Real Estate Documentation Office. Opposition members and residents managed to extinguish the flames caused by the bombing, but not before some of the registries were destroyed. Fearing a repeat of the incident, they moved the remaining registries to a safe location underground. Then in 2015, fearing damage as some of the registries were exposed to moisture, activists began volunteering to make copies of the documents. They photocopied all the pages of each land registry and all their contents. Activists then re-archived those records according to their administrative and real estate distribution. They saved these photocopies to external hard drives.
Pro-regime mediators negotiated with the opposition in Arbeen at a number of stages during the siege of East Ghouta between 2012 and 2018, in an effort to pressure opposition authorities to hand over paper real estate registries in exchange for partially lifting the siege. Mediators also said they would provide the city with flour and fuel to run bakeries. The opposition-run Arbeen Local Council rejected the proposal, fearing that the regime might tamper with or falsify real estate registries.
Then in 2017, the Arbeen Local Council decided to convert the city’s real estate archive, which at the time simply consisted of photocopies, into an automated, interactive platform designed by an IT engineer. However, the last military operations on East Ghouta, which started in early 2018, brought that conversion to a halt. During the forced displacements of residents who refused reconciliation with the regime, members of the Arbeen Local Council took the external hard drives with them to northern Syria. However, they left behind the remaining paper registries.
The person responsible for automating the records confirmed to The Syria Report that real estate registries for Arbeen from before 2012 were preserved, while no real estate incidents that occurred between 2012 and 2018 were recorded in order to “preserve rights and prevent distortion of registries.” He added: “The recording of incidents cannot be complete unless they are recorded by the General Directorate of Cadastral Affairs in Damascus.” This is why the focus was on preserving the registries from before 2012.
The registries that opposition members worked to archive likely include a large number of those that the Directorate of Cadastral Affairs had announced were lost in Arbeen. The existence of any of these documents serves as a guarantee of rights during the digitisation and restoration process.