Since early 2023, the Rural Damascus governorate has permitted displaced residents from the Al-Wahda and Al-Istiqlal neighbourhoods of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad to apply to return home. Previous returns in 2022 were limited to residents who had been displaced from the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is a city and the administrative centre of a subdistrict within the Rural Damascus governorate and borders the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. About a half million people lived in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad before 2011, and at the time it was home to the largest population of displaced families who had fled the Golan Heights in the June 1967 war with Israel. Because of this dense concentration of residents from the Golan’s Quneitra governorate, the two governorates of Rural Damascus and Quneitra have overlapping authority in Al-Haja Al-Aswad. In any case, much of the city consists of informal settlements that are unzoned and unserved, and which became a destination for low-income Syrians moving to the greater Damascus area from other governorates.
The city faced severe wartime destruction during the period of opposition control in 2012-2015, as well as during Islamic State control in 2015-2018. Regime forces regained control of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in 2018 after a massive aerial and artillery bombardment campaign that destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forcibly displaced remaining residents.
Until late 2022, only residents from the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods were allowed to return to the city, because those areas were the least affected by wartime damages. However, rubble remains scattered along the main road connecting those two neighbourhoods, as well as in many other areas, despite individual efforts by returnees to remove it at their own expense. In late 2022, a delegation of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad residents met with the Rural Damascus governor, Safwan Abu Saada, to complain about the low quality of public services in Tishreen and Al-Thawra. They demanded that the governorate take necessary steps to halt the looting and theft of their newly restored homes, as well as speed up rehabilitation of water, electricity and sewage networks and paving roads. Abu Saada responded that the governorate and relevant authorities were working hard to secure those necessities, and stressed that it was important for the local community to cooperate and participate in reconstruction.
Meanwhile, Al-Wahda and Al-Istiqlal neighbourhoods, which before 2011 had a majority of Turkmen and Circassian residents from the Golan Heights, suffered worse damage from the war, which delayed returns. In late 2022, some residents who had been displaced from Al-Istiqlal took part in a volunteer campaign to clean the neighbourhood, including removing rubble from homes and some streets. They collected the debris in public squares, in coordination with the municipality. Still, at the time they were not allowed to return home, and so they left once again after they had completed the campaign. During a tour of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in January 2023 Quneitra governor Mutaz Abu Al-Nasr Jamran said that he had ordered work crews from his governorate to clean Al-Wahda and Al-Istiqlal neighbourhoods. However, these crews did not start cleaning the main streets and some side streets of the two neighbourhoods until March 13 — and even then only spent four days on the job.
Residents from Al-Jazira and Al-Alaf neighbourhoods are still prohibited from returning, as those areas were mostly destroyed due to a network of tunnels the Islamic State dug beneath them during its period of control. The two neighbourhoods also suffered intense bombing during the final military campaign in 2018 by regime and Russian forces. Khaled Khamis, head of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad City Council, posted to Facebook on March 11 that important steps had already been taken to rehabilitate the city’s infrastructure and services. He added that returns would later be allowed to Al-Jazira neighbourhood, but only after the governorate removed buildings there at risk of collapse.
Notably, the Quneitra governorate is the one that always begins removing the rubble from neighbourhoods where the Rural Damascus has allowed residents to return. After such work begins, the Quneitra governorate then withdraws its work crews and machinery without explanation and Rural Damascus governorate work crews take over the job. This is what happened in Al-Thawra and Tishreen neighbourhoods in early 2022 — at the time, the Quneitra governorate and Golan notables obtained approval for residents to return. It started removing rubble and then left for the Rural Damascus governorate to take over.
Residents have criticised this unusual behaviour by the Quneitra governorate, which has yet to rehabilitate any of its centres or schools in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. A source familiar with the governorate council’s operations told The Syria Report that this is due to funding issues. While the Rural Damascus governorate often receives aid from local and international NGOs for early recovery project contracts it undertook in the city, the Quneitra governorate has been unable to receive any of this assistance. Instead, it relies solely on its own budget and whatever it can collect in accordance with the Financial Law of Administrative Units.
Syrian authorities are seeking out international organisations to obtain funding for early recovery projects. These include rehabilitation of schools, water, electricity and sewage networks and rubble removal. It appears that Syrian authorities have set such rehabilitation as a precondition for return of displaced residents to their hometowns.
In addition to the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), currently a team from the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East is helping rehabilitate Al-Hajar Al-Aswad with help from Norwegian Church Aid, which in March restored the city’s medical centre before handing it over to the Rural Damascus Directorate of Health. The French NGO Première Urgence Internationale also rehabilitated the city’s third mixed-gender school alongside the Rural Damascus governorate and the Ministry of Education.
The Al-Hajar Al-Aswad City Council head said in March 2023 that there had been 3,100 applications to return to the city, of which 2,700 were approved. He added that around 350 homes had been restored, 140 of them with assistance from SARC. Finally, he vowed to restore the city’s drinking water network soon. Still, a local correspondent for The Syria Report said that returns to the city were still low, and that only about 1,000 people (200 families) had returned to settle there. Though many displaced residents return to their homes sporadically to check on their homes, most choose not to resettle in the area, as it still lacks basic services such as water and electricity.
According to the correspondent, returnees may now undergo security checks at the municipal office in the district branch of the Military Security detachment on Al-Thalatheen Street in neighbouring Yarmouk before they enter Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. Al-Thalatheen Street is the main entryway into the city. The procedures for obtaining security approval have not changed, and those wishing to return must submit an application to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad municipality, which then sends their files to the district branch. There, the applications undergo study before either approval or rejection. Those who have lost their property ownership documents have still not been able to obtain security approval, despite having followed the municipality’s instructions: getting a record from the police station, obtaining an electricity or water payment receipt, and providing a paper from their neighbourhood mukhtar in which two witnesses from the area testify that the applicant is a local property owner.
One displaced man told The Syria Report that he visits Al-Hajar Al-Aswad every month to check on his house. Each time, he finds that conditions have worsened due to looting, especially in the Al-Alaf and Al-Jazira neighourhoods. Looters take anything that can be sold or recycled, including the city’s newly installed lighting poles. On top of that, the checkpoint at the entrance to the city imposes fees on residents hoping to bring in furniture for their homes.