The reasons for the ongoing demolition of properties in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, administratively a part of the Rural Damascus governorate, are unclear to its returning residents. While the municipality continues to demolish buildings classified as dangerous and at risk of collapse, work crews belonging to regime forces are illegally continuing their demolition process to loot, recycle rubble and extract iron. Demolition and looting operations in the city have not ceased since the regime forces took control of it in mid-2018.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is a city and district centre adjacent to Damascus’s Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. Before 2011, it was home to about half a million people, including the largest number of people displaced from the Golan Heights since the June 1967 war with Israel. A large part of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad consists of informal, unserviced settlements, and it has been a destination for low-income migrants from other Syrian provinces.
The city suffered severe destruction due to combat during the opposition’s control between 2012-2015 and during the period of Islamic State control between 2015-2018. Regime forces regained control in 2018 after a widespread aerial and artillery bombardment campaign that destroyed entire neighbourhoods in the city and forcibly displaced its remaining inhabitants.
At the end of 2021, the Rural Damascus governorate allowed the conditional return of residents to some neighbourhoods of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad that were judged to be habitable, particularly the Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods. However, the governorate did not allow displaced people to return to the Al-Wahda and Al-Istiqlal neighbourhoods until early 2023 and prevented returns to Al-Jazeera and Al-Alaf neighbourhoods.
Demolition operations for buildings classified as dangerous and at risk of collapse are focused in the Al-Jazeera and Al-Alaf neighbourhoods and the city’s outskirts near Al-Qadam, a district in Damascus city.
The Public Safety Committee of the Rural Damascus governorate oversees part of the demolition operations. Over the past two years, the committee conducted a technical study of the structural condition of buildings in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, identifying those that are dangerous and at risk of collapse and need to be removed. The latest of these studies took place in the Al-Jazeera neighbourhood in May 2023. Following this study, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad municipality requested homeowners in the neighbourhood to consult with them within 15 days to learn the study results and understand the status of their properties, whether they need removal, reinforcement or repair.
The Syria Report’s correspondent in the area stated that the study conducted by the Public Safety Committee in Al-Jazeera was not accurate and comprehensive for all the buildings there. While some property owners received reports on the structural condition of their properties after consulting with the municipality, others discovered that their buildings were not included in the study despite being located in the neighbourhood. Municipal employees informed the visitors that the study did not cover all the buildings in the Al-Jazeera neighbourhood. They advised some residents to inspect their own homes, marking them with a clear red sign if they were structurally sound, to prevent the municipality from demolishing them. The Syria Report’s correspondent confirmed that the municipality did not provide these visitors with any practical tools or theoretical guides to help them assess the structural safety of their buildings.
Contrary to the municipality’s demolition work, working crews affiliated with regime forces continue demolishing buildings without any licence or approval and with the sole aim of looting the rubble. In September 2023, a three-story building in the Al-Jazeera neighbourhood collapsed during looting by a work crew affiliated with the regime’s Fourth Division, the elite force led by Maher Al-Assad. The local police and security detachment covered up the incident. This followed an incident in November 2022, when seven people were killed due to the collapse of a four-storey building in Al-Jazeera while they were trying to extract iron from the pillars and ceilings of the damaged building.
The correspondent also reported that some families not residing in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad prefer to sell their homes, even at low prices, fearing their demolition by the municipality or looting crews. This is encouraged because the area is informal, and most buildings do not have official property documents. In addition, during the war, many lost ownership documents of their buildings, which are mostly common properties.
Maram, a widow with three children, told The Syria Report that she offered her house in the Al-Jazeera neighbourhood for sale for SYP 20 million (around USD 1,400) because she cannot return home. She added that the lack of services and security in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad make the idea of returning very uncomfortable for her. She also mentioned that she would not wait for the possibility of returning to the Al-Jazeera neighbourhood, as she might risk losing her home to demolition by looting crews.
Imad, another former resident, told The Syria Report that he used to check on his house in the Tishreen neighbourhood whenever he had the chance. However, during his last visit in December 2023, he found that the stairs and the rooftop of his house had been demolished by looting crews, who had extracted the iron rebar. Imad also noticed that his neighbour’s house and three other nearby houses had been demolished and the iron removed from them. Imad suspects that his house will soon be demolished as the looting crews work systematically, focusing on sections of the neighbourhood until they complete the demolition and looting of the neighbourhood. These crews often start by demolishing the staircases to prevent the owners from returning, then gradually demolishing the rest of the building.
Some of those affected by the looting had filed a complaint with the mayor of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, Khaled Khamees, between August and October 2023 to stop the looting of their homes. Mr Khamees informed those affected at the time that he could not do anything to protect their properties or stand up against the looting crews. He referred them to the police and security forces to file a complaint. The mayor denied any involvement of his municipality in demolishing habitable houses or their looting. Those affected filed a report with the city police station and the security detachment at the beginning of Thalatheen Street but to no avail.
Mr Khamees told the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper on January 9 that 2,100 families had returned to the city, most of them to Al-Thawra neighbourhood and, to a lesser extent, to the Tishreen, Al-Wahda, and Al-Istiqlal neighbourhoods. The Syria Report’s correspondent mentioned that local community sources estimate the number of families that have returned to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad since 2018 to be around 1,300 families, approximately 6,500 people, and added that the services, scarce as they are, are concentrated in Al-Thawra neighbourhood, while the rest of the neighbourhoods are neglected.