Hammoud purchased a 10-hectare plot of land overlooking a main road in a Rural Damascus governorate town in 1993. The land was within the town’s zoning plan, and Hammoud obtained a construction permit for an industrial facility and a residential apartment adjacent to it. The total built-up area on his land was more than 400 square metres. Hammoud, who had lived abroad, invested the fruits of his many years of hard work in this project, aiming for it to serve as his retirement guarantee and an future asset for his children.
However, Hammoud continued to travel overseas for work, which slowed down the industrial facility and apartment building construction. The buildings were not completed until 2005. He did not wish to take out loans to import machinery for the facility; instead, he preferred to take his time with the industrial project, continue to work abroad for an extended period, and use the facility building as a warehouse for storing goods. By 2011, he had finished building the apartment, and it was ready for him to move in.
However, the strategic location of the land (overlooking the town and a main road), along with the size of the industrial facility and its technically sound construction using reinforced concrete, made the entire project attractive to the various military forces that traded control of the area. By the end of 2012, as the pace of peaceful demonstrations in the region increased and acts against the regime escalated, a regime-affiliated armed group seized Hammoud’s land. They turned the facility into their base, bringing in equipment and ammunition. Once, when Hammoud approached his property hoping to meet the officer in charge, he was driven away and threatened with death should he return.
Regime forces remained on Hammoud’s property for over a year before relocating elsewhere and handing it over to the pro-regime militia, the National Defence Forces (NDF). During its occupation, the NDF looted the facility and adjoining apartments, stealing all its contents, including the suspended ceilings and roof tiles. The leader of this local armed group was killed in 2015 during armed clashes with the opposition in the area. Afterwards, the group disbanded and left the site, during which Hammoud was abroad. Upon hearing the news, Hammoud returned to check on his land and properties.
However, when he arrived, Hammoud was surprised to find yet another pro-regime militia had taken over the site. The militia’s leader had initially joined an armed opposition faction at the start of the uprising but later reconciled with the regime forces and formed a local militia, coordinating with Military Intelligence. Aside from fighting against opposition factions, this militia was also involved in wartime economy tactics, such as kidnapping for ransom, drug and arms trafficking, and car theft.
The militia reportedly considered Hammoud’s property an ideal base of operations, using it to hold kidnap victims, dismantle stolen cars for parts, and store and distribute drugs. They altered the facility and the apartment’s structure, building additional sections and demolishing walls in certain areas. The militia leader made the site his headquarters, setting up an office decorated with stolen goods from other regions, where he received his visitors.
As their illicit business ventures thrived, the militia took over several villas and homes in the same town, using them as residences for their members and families. Most of these homes and villas belonged to regime opponents or expatriates who had not returned to the town since 2011 due to the war and lack of security. Legally speaking, these takeovers are known as property extortion, i.e., taking over someone else’s property without their consent, or asserting control over someone else’s property without any legal ownership or valid reason.
Since 2015, Hammoud has tried every means available to reclaim his property. Initially, he sought the help of intermediaries to negotiate with the militia leader. He also turned to the legal system and hired a “top-notch” lawyer, one who had connections with officials in the military and security forces, allowing them to mediate with those parties. Such lawyers demand high fees, often off the books, frequently claiming the funds are used to bribe officers, officials and judges. Hammoud says his lawyer led him on for two years, taking significant fees without any results, not even filing a lawsuit. Other intermediaries proved no better, rustling in Hammoud and spending exorbitant amounts of money to no avail.
A high-ranking regime military officer facilitated the first direct meeting between the Hammoud and the militia leader and took place in the militia leader’s luxurious office, which Hammoud says he no longer recognised as his property. An additional storey had been built, escalators installed, and armed guards were stationed everywhere, treating the militia leader with reverence, even kissing his hand as he passed or entered his office. Hammoud describes the scene as reminiscent of a mafia film.
The mediator turned out to be a close friend of the militia leader, revealing an evident prior agreement between them that he said would be a middle-ground solution: Hammoud would pay $150,000 for the militia to vacate the site, compensating for the alterations the militia leader had made to the property. Stunned by the amount, Hammoud immediately rejected the offer and made to leave. But the mediator stopped him, Hammoud says, suggesting another solution: that Hammoud writes off half the property in the militia leader’s name, making them partners in ownership. Hammoud also firmly rejected this offer.
Other mediators also stepped in at different stages, albeit reaching similar terms. With every door seemingly closed before him, Hammoud eventually turned to the judiciary and hired another lawyer to file a case for eviction from his extorted property. The militia leader did not attend any court sessions but had a group of lawyers represent and defend him. The defence was based on the militia leader’s claim that he had purchased the property from its owner. Yet, he failed to present the sales contract, alleging it was lost.
The militia leader’s legal team made offers throughout the trial to Hammoud to relinquish his property or pay compensation to the militia leader in exchange for eviction. Due to the lack of evidence, the trial court ruled in Hammoud’s favour, allowing him to reclaim his property; the appellate court did the same. However, each time the judicial police accompanied the property owner to implement the court’s eviction decision, a high-ranking official contacted the police chief, persuading him to abandon the site without enforcing the ruling.
Finally, after a full year of delayed implementation of the ruling, Hammoud was forced to seek the assistance of a high-ranking regime military officer. This officer intervened by dispatching a military force that accompanied the judicial police, and they evicted the occupants. And though Hammoud regained his property, there is still a legal restraint on disposal transactions related to it. He says he does not know the reason for this restriction. Still, he suspects it is an attempt by the militia leader’s lawyers to keep matters unresolved and force him to pay compensation.