Seven people were killed on November 2, 2022, when a four-storey building collapsed in the Rural Damascus governorate city of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. The victims had been there to extract iron from the damaged building’s columns and roof in order to loot and recycle it. This illicit business–the rubble trade–appears to be attracting new companies as it enjoys military and security protection.
Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is a city and administrative centre of a district within the Rural Damascus governorate, and sits adjacent to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. Before 2011, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad had about half a million residents and was known as host to the largest number of Golan Heights residents who had been displaced by the June 1967 war. Much of the city consists of informal housing that was never properly zoned or serviced, and which became destinations for low-income Syrians coming to the capital region from other parts of the country.
The city faced massive wartime damage when the opposition controlled it from 2012 to 2015, and again during the period of Islamic State control in 2015-2018. Regime forces regained control of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad in 2018 after an airstrikes and artillery campaign that destroyed entire neighbourhoods and forcibly displaced any remaining residents.
November’s collapsed building was located in Al-Jazeereh neighbourhood in the northwestern part of the city. Severe damage to that neighbourhood has prevented residents from returning to it. The Rural Damascus governorate has previously allowed conditional returns for residents of the city’s Tishreen and Al-Thawra neighbourhoods, which are considered safely inhabitable. However, according to The Syria Report’s correspondent in the area, only 150 out of thousands who applied were permitted to return.
Pro-regime media reported that the head of the local council of Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad had denied there were any casualties in the building collapse. Rather, he stated that the building was uninhabited and there were only material damages. The reason behind his denial could be that Al-Jazeereh neighbourhood is still uninhabited and returns are not allowed, making it difficult to explain any deaths without acknowledging the looting operations.
However, eyewitnesses confirmed to The Syria Report that the building collapsed while looters were breaking apart the roof to extract iron rebar. A woman and a 16-year-old boy were among the dead, while the rest were members of a family from Al-Jumlan tribe, which hails from East Ghouta.
A work crew from the Rural Damascus governorate came to the scene of the collapsed building equipped with heavy machinery, spending two days searching the rubble for bodies. Personnel from Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad police station and Military Security branch, which controls the area, prevented people from getting near the site.
One Al-Hajar Al-Aswad resident told The Syria Report that they saw large trucks removing debris extracted from the city’s damaged buildings on more than one occasion. Those trucks passed through security checkpoints without objections, The Syria Report’s correspondent added.
Regime forces closed off the entrances to Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad with dirt mounds in 2018, though one entrance from Al-Thalatheen Street was kept open. This entrance is overseen by two checkpoints that closely inspect anyone who has been permitted to pass through.
According to The Syria Report’s correspondent, the looting crews are given security permissions by the army’s Fourth Division. These permissions allow the crews to enter Al-Hajar Al-Aswad for work. The looting crews collect the rubble in certain locations of the city, where rubble dealers then go purchase it. The most important material for sale is iron, which is transported via trucks to furnaces to be recycled.
Syrian Company for Metals and Investments
The Syria Report’s correspondent cited sources in Al-Hajjar Al-Aswad who said some of those trucks belong to the Syrian Company for Metals and Investments, whose articles of association had been approved by the Decision No. 3061/2018 of the Ministry of Internal Trade and Consumer Protection. Under Decision No. 3061, it has the right to import and export all types of metals, iron, plastics and aluminium, as well as sort and transport rubble, trade construction and cladding materials and cement, in addition to other activities.
The Syria Report could not independently confirm whether the rubble trucks indeed belonged to this company.