Over the course of the war, many residents of the informal Ash Al-Warwar settlement in Damascus have been expelled from their homes due to their sectarian or ethnic affiliations or their political orientations. Militias loyal to the regime or newly displaced people to the area have seized the properties of these absentees.
Ash Al-Warwar emerged in the early 1970s as a series of scattered buildings in a rugged mountainous area overlooking Barzeh Al-Balad, a Damascus district. These buildings were constructed on public properties that the residents seized and divided into small plots of land on which they built tightly connected homes devoid of construction safety conditions. The land is owned by the municipalities of Barzeh in Damascus and Maaraba in Rural Damascus, which means it falls administratively under those municipal authorities. However, the governorate of Damascus is directly responsible for providing services in the settlement, while it is under the authority of Al-Qaboun police force.
Most residents of Ash Al-Warwar are Alawites from the Masyaf area in the Hama governorate, and some neighbourhoods are named after Masyaf villages, such as Deir Mama, Al-Naqir and Baarin. The settlement also includes small neighbourhoods of Sunni migrants from Deir-ez-Zor and Al-Qalamoun in Rural Damascus, as well as Kurdish migrants from northeastern Syria. A significant proportion of residents are from low-income families and are minor public sector and ministry employees, especially in the army and security agencies.
Public services in Ash Al-Warwar were already poor before 2011 on various levels. For instance, the area was not served by a transport line to and from the capital city and taxis often refused to enter it due to its rough and narrow roads. The water and sanitation network was dilapidated, and residents often extended sections of it at their own expense, without supervision and maintenance by the government water and sanitation institutions. Residents depended on securing their consumer and food needs from the nearby Barzeh neighbourhood due to the lack of public markets in Ash Al-Warwar.
In 2011, with increasing sectarian polarisation with Barzeh, armed popular committees loyal to the regime formed in Ash Al-Warwar and integrated with the National Defence Forces, a regime militia, by the end of 2012. The National Defence Forces in Ash Al-Warwar and opposition forces in Barzeh engaged in violent battles that, by 2013, destroyed the frontline area between them. Both sides also exchanged sectarian cleansing operations to expel the remaining Sunnis from Ash Al-Warwar and Alawites from Barzeh. The National Defence Forces seized these homes in Ash Al-Warwar, distributing them to the families of its fighters from the neighbourhood and to displaced Alawite people coming from Al-Baath Street in the nearby Tishreen informal settlement next to Al-Qaboun.
Aliaa is originally from the Syrian coast and now lives with her husband in a formerly predominantly Kurdish neighbourhood of Ash Al-Warwar. The Kurdish residents, who were mostly Sunni, refrained from open conflict against regime forces on a sectarian basis in most parts of Syria, including Ash Al-Warwar. However, most of the Kurds were expelled from Ash Al-Warwar, and the National Defence Forces took over their houses to accommodate the families of its fighters. Aliaa says that some of these Kurdish families migrated to Europe, while others ended up in Hassakeh. She adds that the National Defence Forces justified the seizure of their properties by saying that a Kurdish state had been established in northeastern Syria and that they should move there.
According to Aliaa, two years ago few of those Kurdish residents returned to Ash Al-Warwar and demanded their homes back. Some of them sought help from the Fourth Division detachment present in Ash al-Warwar in order to evict the current occupants of their homes. In some cases, the Fourth Division intervened and evacuated the occupants, after the returnees showed water and electricity bills, and witnesses from their old Alawite acquaintances and neighbours testified that they were the original homeowners. In other instances, the current occupants of those properties refused to leave.
Ramia is a young Kurdish woman who used to live in Ash al-Warwar with her mother and siblings, in a two-storey building built by her late father. As the violence in the neighbourhood escalated during the war, all her male siblings migrated to Europe, and Ramia moved to live in the neighbouring Kurdish-majority RuknEddin neighbourhood in Damascus. National Defence Forces took over their building and distributed its apartments to the families of its fighters. Ramia kept all the documents proving her family’s ownership of the building, which are receipts for paying water, electricity and telephone bills. About a year ago, Ramia filed a complaint with the Public Prosecution, accusing the occupants of the building of theft. One of the lawyers told her that she would not be able to reclaim the building by filing a property seizure lawsuit, but only if she filed a criminal complaint. Ramia accompanied a police patrol, to which she paid a hefty bribe, that helped her recover the building.
It is difficult for residents to file property extortion lawsuits, as they do not have sufficient property documents. Therefore, it is easier to file a complaint to the Public Prosecution in Damascus, where the complainant reports that their home has been robbed, then extorted. The prosecution then transfers the complaint to Al-Qaboun Police Department, which in turn sends a police patrol to the house to evacuate its occupants. The patrol requests on-site witnesses to confirm the complainant’s ownership of the house. In other instances, the complainant seeks help from the Fourth Division’s local detachment to carry out the same task, even though it is not within its jurisdiction.
Saeed is from Idlib and lived in a neighbourhood mostly inhabited by people from Deir-ez-Zor in Ash Al-Warwar. He was forcibly evicted from his home after a group of young men broke into it, assaulted him and accused him of belonging to an opposition faction. Most of the Sunni residents evicted from Ash Al-Warwar were from Idlib. Usually they were driven out by arresting family members, accusing them of belonging to opposition factions and threatening intimidation. Saeed did not leave the country but ended up renting a house in a nearby neighbourhood. An Alawite family now lives in his home in Ash Al-Warwar. Saeed fears approaching any type of authority to reclaim his house, and he has no intention of returning to the neighbourhood after what he has endured there. Saeed’s ultimate hope is for the family living in his house to pay him rent.
Rida, a young Alawite man, lived with his family in a rented house in the nearby Barzeh Al-Balad neighbourhood. Rida has a brother working in the intelligence services, and the whole family supports the regime. The family was threatened by opposition factions to leave Barzeh, through pamphlets placed in front of their house urging them to leave the neighbourhood, and by writing threats on their door.
Rida’s family left Barzeh in late 2011 and lived in a building in Ash Al-Warwar, the owner of which is from Barzeh and had also been displaced from the neighbourhood. The building consists of three storeys near the main road leading to Tishreen Military Hospital. Rida’s family took over the entire building, refusing to share it with the National Defense Forces. In 2016, a confrontation broke out between the two parties, involving bombs and light weapons. The family still lives in the building, supported by the local mukhtar, known for his strong relations with high-ranking officials in the security and military services.