Only 40 families have thus far managed to return home to the nearly deserted town of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad outside Damascus, as rubble still covers large areas of the town and basic public services remain absent.
The Al-Hajar Al-Aswad municipality announced in January 2022 that it was providing what it called “facilities,” or easier tracks, for those wishing to return to the town. Among those facilities is the replacement of the homeownership deed, which is required for returning, with an electricity or water pay slip along with a statement from the mukhtar confirming that he knows the homeowner. However, some rights holders have not benefited from these easier conditions for return, including land owners or owners of uncompleted buildings who had not previously applied for electricity and water services.
The mayor of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad stated in mid-February 2022 that 300 of around 1,350 families who had applied to return had been granted approval. So far only 40 families have actually made the return home, however.
Returns have been confined to the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods thus far, while the other areas of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad remain deserted and riddled with wartime rubble.
The municipal council had begun in September 2021 to reopen applications for displaced residents wishing to return. Applicants must comply with a complex set of conditions before obtaining final approval to return home. First, they must fill out a form and attach documents proving their ownership of the property they wish to return to, as well as provide a family record statement and copies of each family member’s personal ID card. The security services then study the complete file and either approve or reject the application. In the event of approval, a technical committee from the municipality inspects the property and assesses its damages. Should the committee find the property safely inhabitable, the property owner must then apply for a permit from the municipality to restore it. Afterwards, the applicant finally receives their official approval to return.
A number of obstacles still prevent many families from returning to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. Most notably, families face significant delays in the return security approval process without being informed of the reasons. Some families who were allowed to return decided against returning because local schools remain closed. This is despite previous statements from municipal officials that three schools were being rehabilitated. Rubble also still blocks some of the streets in the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods, despite the municipality having announced its removal.
One resident called Mohammad told The Syria Report that he had been granted security approval in late 2021 to return to his partially damaged house. He had also applied for permission to restore the house. However, he must pay SYP 500 for each square metre of the house in order to obtain the permit, a requirement that he said made him hesitate to go through with returning home.
Nidal, another resident, owns two houses in the Tishreen neighbourhood. He said he applied for return by providing all the necessary documents, after which he obtained security approval. The technical committee then inspected both of his houses and found them safely habitable. However, Nidal has now been waiting three months to hear back about his final approval in order to be able to return home, he told The Syria Report.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad sits adjacent to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and is the centre of a district that belongs administratively to the Rural Damascus governorate. Around half a million people lived there before 2011, a large portion of them displaced from Quneitra governorate due to the 1967 war and Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. Al-Hajar Al-Aswad faced significant destruction when it was under opposition control in 2012-2018 due to intense regime airstrikes and fighting on the ground. The remaining residents were evacuated after regime forces retook control of the town in 2018.
The 40 families who have returned to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad live in poor conditions, without running water or electricity and with weak cellular coverage. Even the sewage network is still not running, despite that the municipal council announced the completion of repair work in Tishreen and Al-Thawra.
Local sources also told The Syria Report small-scale looting is ongoing. The looting is currently being done by small work crews affiliated with the local branch of the Military Security services, which is the security force in control of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. These crews take apart the roofs of some houses to extract iron from them. The local sources added that these crews had stolen five solar-powered lighting poles of 40 poles that had been provided by the aid organisation Premiere Urgence Internationale in 2021.