On Monday, the Damascus governorate announced the collapse of parts of a building in an informal settlement in the Tadhamon district south of Damascus, leading to one fatality and 14 injuries. The building, consisting of several floors, three inhabited, had cracks due to the damages done by war. However, its owner had undertaken repairs, according to City FM radio.
The building had been damaged due to combat activities. Its owner managed to return and obtain a licence to renovate it. However, without conducting an engineering study for its structural integrity, sources told the local correspondent for The Syria Report.
The semi-official Al-Watan warned on Tuesday of the remaining part of the building collapsing. An official source in the Damascus governorate reported the detention of 10 individuals pending investigation in connection with the building collapse and the search for another 8, Al-Watan also said.
This marks the first time an inhabited, rehabilitated building collapsed without proper engineering reinforcement in Al-Tadhamon. However, such occurrences have become commonplace in other war-affected areas, especially in East Aleppo. What is noteworthy in the Tadhamon case is the hesitant return of displaced individuals, attributed to the strictness in granting security approval for those wishing to return to the neighbourhood. The de facto authorities controlling Al-Tadhamon, which include the Military Security Intelligence Service and the National Defence Forces (NDF) militia, also make returning residents pay bribes to get this security approval.
Al-Tadhamon is located southeast of Damascus and is considered the southern gateway to the capital, six kilometres from the city centre. The neighbourhood dates back to the late 1960s when thousands of people from the Golan and Quneitra regions were displaced following the fall of the Golan Heights to Israel in the June 1967 war. These displaced people established informal settlements on the agricultural lands of the Tadhamon area belonging to Damascus city. The neighbourhood also attracted a significant influx of people from rural areas of Syria.
Before 2011, about 200,000 people lived in Al-Tadhamon, historically suffering from poor services and living conditions. Many residents rose against the regime in 2011. The opposition controlled the southern part of the neighbourhood from 2012, which afterwards was under continuous siege and bombardment by regime forces, causing widespread destruction.
In 2015, that part of the neighbourhood fell under the control of the extremist Islamic State group, leading to the displacement of most of its remaining inhabitants, before falling back into regime hands in early 2018, accompanied by the forced displacement of the remaining residents.
In July 2018, the Damascus governorate formed a committee to implement Law No. 3 of 2018, which related to removing rubble from damaged buildings, to identify buildings fit for habitation in Al-Tadhamon. However, the law does not seem to have been implemented in the neighbourhood.
In September 2020, the Damascus Governorate announced that displaced people from the area could gradually return after obtaining security clearance. Those wishing to return to Al-Tadhamon must submit a return application at the Midan municipality in Damascus, including personal documents, proof of property ownership in Al-Tadhamon, a financial clearance, and payment of accumulated dues for electricity, water and telephones.
Subsequently, the application must be forwarded to Military Security, which conducts a security review of the returnees’ files and either approves or rejects the request. Knowing the security criteria for issuing these approvals or denials is difficult. However, in principle, approval is not granted to anyone who participated in activities opposing the regime in the area, whether peaceful or armed, even if they had reconciled and settled their security status. Denials of return are not limited to opponents but also include their relatives. In other cases, the approval and rejection process seems random and not based on any transparent database or rule.
One of the former residents of Al-Tadhamon, now living in Turkey and owning a house in one of the neighbourhoods of Al-Tadhamon near the neighbouring town of Yalda, managed to authenticate a final sale contract of the house to one of his relatives at the Syrian embassy in Ankara, to enable his relative to renovate the house and then rent or sell it. However, his relative could not obtain the necessary security clearance, and the responsible officer requested that the house’s original owner apply for the security clearance.
The Midan municipality agrees to the return request if the security clearance is issued. It requires the displaced person wishing to return to take full responsibility for their property’s safety and remove the rubble at their own expense.
According to a local correspondent for The Syria Report, no more than 1,500 people have returned to Al-Tadhamon to date. One of the returnees told the correspondent that Military Security has been refusing to grant new security clearances for the past year without payment of a bribe, even when applicants submit all the required documents. The security officers demand a payment of SYP 1 million for approval.
However, the approval issued by the Military Security for return is not enough. After that, the NDF, which controls Al-Tadhamon, must also agree to the return, although it has no official authorisation granting it these powers. The militia’s approval is exclusively granted in exchange for a monetary payment, which varies depending on the property’s location and degree of personal acquaintance with the returnees. In several cases, NDF personnel bought houses from the returnees at low prices after harassing them, controlling the quantity of building materials allowed into the neighbourhood for restoration and rehabilitation, and demanding bribes at each checkpoint.
In one incident, the Syria Report’s correspondent reported that the NDF offered to buy a house in the neighbourhood for SYP 18 million (about USD 1,300). When the owner refused to sell, he was imprisoned on charges of disrupting public security. He was not released until he agreed to sell the house. In another case, the NDF prevented a homeowner from re-entering the neighbourhood despite obtaining security clearance for return.
According to local sources, many of the current inhabitants of Al-Tadhamon are not its original residents and are living in houses that are not theirs. The sources believe that the NDF has allowed these people to extort the properties due to personal acquaintanceships, relationships, or in exchange for bribes. One of the inhabitants has built a wall around a block containing six traditional “Arab-style” houses near buildings known as the military housing buildings (unrelated to any military institution). However, he is not from the area and does not own any property there.
A resident also told The Syria Report that anyone wanting to return to the streets of Daaboul, Maliki, Slaikha, and the Tuesday Market, which are areas adjacent to Al-Tadhamon and belong to the neighbouring town of Yalda, must apply to the official in charge of the NDF in Al-Tadhamon.