Four years since their displacement: what happened to the properties of Wadi Barada’s people?
Enab Baladi – Ninar Khalifa
A wasteland, all is in ruins, nothing is left, no doors, windows, or furniture. A bleak spectacle of destruction, deep holes in the ground and walls, reflecting the harshness of reality there. The war spared nothing, not even my house. The bombing and violent clashes obliterated my family’s house’s landmarks, to the extent that we could not tell one room from another or what is left from it. The war blurred everything, our memories and laughs included.
Our house was located in Ain al-Khadra village in the Barada Valley area (Wadi Barada) in Rif Dimashq governorate. It was our sanctuary. We went there every time we wanted to escape the city’s noise or the pressures of work and study. There, we enjoyed the beauty of nature and peace of mind, as nothing could disturb our peace or the wonders of nature. The green landscape had a magical power on us; it healed our souls back then; today, darkness dominates the scene and our feelings.
A five-minute video, I obtained by someone who was able to visit the area recently, was enough to depict the gravity of what has happened in our absence. The destruction affected the houses, the streets, and the famous tourist landmarks there.
Wadi Barada or paradeisos (“paradise” in the ancient Greek language), according to the Damascene historian Ibn Asaker, is the name given to the geographical area south of the city of al-Zabadani and the northwest of Damascus where the Barada River originates. The river is the vital artery for one of the oldest capitals in the world and was described by the Greeks as the “Golden River.”
The area of Wadi Barada extends from the southern parts of the city of al-Zabadani and the town of Madaya to the towns of al-Hamah and Qudsaya on the western outskirts of Damascus. The area contains around 20 towns and villages and is famous for its outstanding natural beauty and water abundance. Wadi Barada lies in a valley between the Qalamoun mountain range and has the historical rail line known as “the resorts’ train.”
The most famous towns and villages in the valley are Harrira, Afra, Souq Wadi Barada, Burhaliya, Kafr al-Awamid, al-Husseiniyya, Kafr al-Zeit, Deir Qanun, Deir Muqrin, Ain al-Fijeh, Ain al-Khadra, Bassima, Ashrafiyyet al-Wadi, and Jdeidet al-Wadi.
Ain al-Fijeh is the most famous area in Wadi Barada and contains the Ain al-Fijeh Spring, the primary source of drinking water for Damascus and its outskirts.
Nearly four years after the Syrian regime regained control of the Wadi Barada area, Rif Dimashq governorate issued a decision allowing residents and property owners in the villages of Bassima, Ain al-Khadra, and Ain al-Fijeh to visit their houses for two hours only and under certain conditions.
The governorate issued a circular requesting the residents wishing to visit their homes to head to the governorate’s follow-up office near the al-Rimal checkpoint on the area’s outskirts to submit their visit requests, according to the Damas Voice news website.
On 17 December 2020, the first batch of about 150 persons who had obtained approvals, entered their villages. The rest of the residents would be allowed entrance in batches, the website mentioned.
Recently, a video went viral on social media showing a crowd of the area’s residents standing in front of a military roadblock, listening to a speech by the Republican Guards (RG) security officer Brigadier General Ali al-Jamous.
In the video, al-Jamous promised the residents that infrastructure rehabilitation works will start before thier return to the villages, amid cheers for Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime.
Conditional entry with security clearance
Baraa al-Shami, an activist from Wadi Barada, told Enab Baladi that the long-awaited entrance by the residents of Bassima, Ain al-Khadra, and Ain al-Fijeh villages to check on their houses was only possible after obtaining a security clearance. This prerequisite prevented other people from entering their areas or properties.
The entry approval was based on a security investigation after the people’s names were taken by the al-Rimal checkpoint of the RG. Those who had family members opposing the regime were denied entry, al-Shami said.
He pointed out that the Ain al-Fijeh area is the most damaged in Wadi Barada, where destruction amounted to 80 percent. The entire area of Bassima and Ain al-Khadra was affected, with decimation amounting to 35 percent. In other areas, where damage was only partial, movable properties were looted by entities affiliated with the Syrian regime.
The rest of the villages of Wadi Barada, which have not witnessed intensive military activities and were not deserted by the majority of their residents, lack the simplest and most basic necessities of life. There is neither power nor drinking water there.
Health centers in these villages have a shortage of medical professionals and medicine.
Job opportunities in these areas are also scarce, given that the regime destroyed the economic life in the region.
Moreover, prosecutions and arrest campaigns in the region continue to occur, as military roadblocks set at the area’s outskirts arrest residents periodically and harass them, especially those who have family members opposed to the Syrian regime or displaced to Idlib, al-Shami added.
The regime’s forces recaptured all the cities and towns of Wadi Barada after signing a settlement agreement between the regime and the areas’ dignitaries on 19 January 2017. The agreement stipulated a ceasefire, the return of people to their villages, the entry of rehabilitation and maintenance workshops to the Ain al-Fijeh Spring, and the eviction of fighters and their families to northern Syria.
On 28 January 2017, the opposition factions withdrew from the Ain al-Fijeh Spring, which was entered later by around 20 members of the RG, accompanied by volunteers from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC). The forces raised the Syrian regime’s flag on the spring’s concrete structure, marking the entry of the settlement agreement into force.
This followed a massive ground and air attack on the area by regime forces backed by the Lebanese Hezbollah militias and the Qalamoun Shield Forces (QSF) in late December 2016. The attack killed and wounded dozens of civilians and inflicted serious damages to the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s concrete structure to control the area, despite the Turkish-Russian-sponsored ceasefire in Syria, signed on 29 December 2016.
After the military campaign ended, the regime checkpoints prevented the former residents of Bassima and Ain al-Fijeh from returning to the area, despite previous promises mentioned in the reconciliation agreement.
On the condition of anonymity for security reasons, Ahmed, a resident of the region, talked to Enab Baladi about the destruction of Ain al-Fijeh and Bassima and the possibility of the regime’s implementation of its reconstruction promises and compensation of affected people with alternative housing.
Since the residents’ eviction campaign, which started on 25 December 2016 and ended in late January 2017, access to the villages of Bassima, Ain al-Khadra, and Ain al-Fijeh had been denied by the regime. It declared these areas as military zones, closed their entry points, and systematically destroyed them. Meanwhile, the residents remain displaced in Damascus suburbs and its countryside, Ahmed said.
By controlling the area, the regime sought to expropriate one of the most beautiful tourist areas in Syria, secure water sources, and prevent any threat in this regard.
The regime also had a hidden agenda behind its destructive policy. This agenda involves the destruction of tourist facilities in the area by prominent military figures from the regime and Iranian militias to finance the regime’s reconstruction plans and turn the area into a tourist village with massive facilities and potential profits, given the area’s strategic location and scenic nature.
Legislative Decree No.1 of 2018
The Syrian regime’s government issued laws that caused residents to lose their properties on the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s two protected zones. These laws aimed to organize the area in the interest of the Ain al-Fijeh Water Authority to preserve water security.
Under these laws, the regime prevented the residents’ return and expanded the primary protected land surrounding the Ain al-Fijeh Spring, which covers an area estimated at tens of meters. The regime seized three-quarters of the village of Ain al-Fijeh and strategically destroyed its neighborhoods by using mines and bulldozers, including government buildings, restaurants, and residences.
Demolitions and bombings continued to take place over the past years. Almost the entire Ain al-Fijeh area, particularly its vital and tourist areas, became barren and devoid of trees.
Within the primary zone’s establishment process, the regime’s government divided Ain al-Fijeh into two parts. It prevented people from crossing the divide, making the entire area, extending to the beginning of the neighboring village of Deir Muqrin, administratively affiliated to the Ain al-Fijeh Water Authority.
Ahmed pointed out that in the last visit to the area, the residents were shocked by the significant amount of destruction that befell their properties. Some of them were unable to identify their neighborhoods or houses, whose features were obliterated completely, making the residents regret coming and seeing their properties in the first place.
Google Maps images show massive destruction in the Ain al-Fijeh Spring due to the systematic demolition and bombing operations.
The head of the Syrian regime, Bashar al-Assad, issued Legislative Decree No. 1 on 18 January 2018. The law stipulated the construction of two protected zones, classified as primary and secondary around the Ain al-Fijeh Spring, and the two water tunnels branching out from the spring to Damascus through many villages.
The law also determined the primary zone to include land within 10 meters on each side of the water tunnel, with the secondary zone to be within 20 meters on either side.
The Syrian law defines the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s primary zone as the land surrounding the water source and provides access to it for maintenance works and pollution prevention.
The Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s secondary zone is the land surrounding the water source’s primary zone, in which specific works are banned to prevent the water’s pollution and depletion.
The law provides for the expropriation of entire lands or parts of them within the primary zone based on development plans annexed to the law and for compensation equal to the property’s real value.
The law prevented the establishment of industrial plants, fuel tanks, or houses and buildings in the secondary zone of the spring. In June 2019, the regime’s government passed a new law to demolish residential houses around the Barada River on the pretext that they were included in the river’s protected zone; thereunder, hundreds of houses in Ain al-Fijeh and Bassima were removed.
The law allowed the villages located in the secondary protected zone of the Ain al-Fijeh Spring and the two water tunnels branching out from the spring to Damascus a limited range of works. These works included the practice of rain-fed agriculture without the use of pesticides or fertilizers, which may contaminate the water. The villagers are also allowed to raise cattle in ways that do not affect the water source and restore the existing houses only.
Violetears of the restrictions mentioned above shall be penalized with imprisonment that ranges from six months to one year and a fine of 500,000 Syrian pounds.
The following works are prohibited in the land of the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s primary zone and the two water tunnels: drilling wells, pothole-patching, removal of stones, dust, or sand, as well as quarrying.
It is also prohibited to construct residential, industrial, commercial, or tourist buildings, construct or upgrade roads, and extend service networks or establish tanks, no matter the purpose of their use.
The destruction in the Bassima village is less than that of Ain al-Fijeh, as it only affected some areas surrounding the Barada River. Still, the village’s houses have been bombarded with missiles leaving them in a dilapidated condition, difficult to restore or live in. This complicated the burden of their reconstruction by their owners, according to Ahmed.
Compensating the residents
Ahmed believes that the regime, with its available capabilities, cannot rehabilitate the area’s infrastructure or fulfill its promises to the affected people by compensating them with alternative housing. According to Ahmed, such promises are impossible to achieve on the ground because reconstruction projects require international support and cannot be implemented by a failed government.
The residents fell into despair after four years of unfulfilled government promises. The regime invested money and effort to destroy entire areas and displace their residents, so it will not return the owners to their properties. Besides, the regime is not under external pressure in the returning issue. People are helpless; they cannot take legal actions to reclaim or restore their properties or demand compensation. The cost is very high and requires international supervision to carry out the reconstruction projects in Syria, Ahmed said.
The regime’s government has announced its intention to establish a residential suburb under the name of Wadi Barada Suburb in the vicinity of Ain al-Fijeh town in Rif Dimashq governorate.
Rif Dimashq governorate has signed a 450 million Syrian pounds (SYP = 212,264 USD) contract with the General Company for Engineering Studies to prepare the urban development plan of the Wadi Barada Suburb, the Director of Decision-Support and Regional Planning for the Rif Dimashq governorate, Abdul Razzaq Dhmeiriyeh, stated to the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on 17 August 2020.
The planned suburb will serve as alternative housing for citizens whose houses in Wadi Barada were damaged, Dhmeiriyeh added. He mentioned that only residents of houses far from the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s primary zone would be compensated and pledged to safeguard people’s lands and property rights.
Dhmeiriyeh pointed out that the number of alternative housing recipients is clear and that work is underway to prepare a zoning plan for the residential suburb within a year. One of the public sector companies will be responsible for building the Barada Suburb, similar to the Qudsaya Suburb.
The Barada Suburb would be established on an area of 50 hectares (500,000 m2) to the eastern part of Bassima and Ain al-Fijeh, and in the middle between Bassima and al-Draij areas, with which the suburb will be connected through a local strategic road network.
In May 2019, the regime government promised to compensate the residents of Ain al-Fijeh and Bassima villages with alternative housing, following the approval of a new regulatory plan for the area, according to the former governor of Rif Dimashq, Alaa Ibrahim.
The suburb’s establishment decision was met with popular rejection from the Wadi Barada residents on social media platforms. The Heritage and Memories of Ain al-Fijeh Facebook page posted, “We will not accept an alternative residential suburb in a remote area that even monsters would refuse to live in. The area is unfit for human or demon habitation. It lacks water and the simplest necessities of life.”
In June 2019, the regime government announced the allocation of 700 million SYP (around 1,167,000 USD) to complete the removal of rubble within the two water tunnels’ primary protected zone from the Ain al-Fijeh Spring to Bassima village.
Difficult living conditions under regime’s control
The area lacks essential services and adequate infrastructure. Its forcibly displaced residents face significant difficulties, the former head of the Wadi Barada villages’ local council, Salem Nasrallah, confirmed to Enab Baladi.
Members of the Fourth Division and the RG forces looted the residents’ houses of their furniture, marble, steel bars, and all that can be taken from them. The houses were made uninhabitable. They also robbed state buildings and property, including schools, mosques, telephone switchboard operators, and electricity cables. The regime elements bulldozed the houses and cafes on either side of the Ain al-Fijeh Spring and along the Barada River areas. They damaged the area severely.
The regime has promised those who had chosen to remain in villages adjacent to their villages to return them to their houses; however, it did not fulfill its promises under false pretenses. Moreover, the promised alternative housing compensation to affected residents in mountainous areas would take years to implement. The alternative accommodation project requires adequate infrastructure and substantial funding, which the regime government does not have.
The regime kept preventing the residents of Bassima and Ain al-Fijeh from returning to their areas, but it recently allowed some of them to enter the cemetery of Bassima to bury their dead. “This seemed as if the regime was indicating that the dead are better than the living,” Nasrallah added sarcastically.
The displaced people from the Wadi Barada areas have been suffering due to the high cost of living and rents in nearby villages, even though they are only a few meters away from their land and property. These areas lack necessary resources and job opportunities, and their residents live under extreme poverty due to the regime government’s negligence. Besides, the regime arrested those who refused to settle their security conditions, and even those who have settled with the regime, were arrested on military checkpoints after false promises of protection.
In early December 2020, the Syrian regime intelligence services issued a list of more than 150 wanted people from Wadi Barada villages, according to the Damas Voice website.
According to the news website, the wanted people were those who had settled their situations with the regime but did not join the combat zones along the regime’s side in northern Syria after being told to do so.
The General Recruitment Directorate in Syria circulated lists of more than 150 people from Kfeir al-Zayt wanted for military reserve service.
The situation of those who were moved by buses to northern Syrian areas was not better. The regime listed their names and confiscated their movable and immovable property, according to Nasrallah.
Nasrallah commented on the significant implications of Law No. 10 of 2018 on the property rights of Wadi Barada residents, as the majority of them are forcibly displaced without their property ownership documents due to war conditions. Others would fear arbitrary arrests upon their entry to regime areas or security prosecutions if they inquired about their relatives’ properties.
On 2 April 2018, al-Assad promulgated low No. 10, which provides for creating one or more development zones within the general master plan of the administrative units.
In a 2018 report Human Rights Watch warned that the implementation of Law No. 10 in Syria would lead to forced evictions of citizens unable to prove their ownership. The organization considered that the law affects property rights without due process or compensation and leads to forced eviction and property seizure for owners whose property rights are not recognized.
“Law No. 10 is a worrisome addition to the Syrian Government’s arsenal of urban planning laws that it has used to confiscate property without due process or compensation,” the Deputy Director of the Human Rights Watch Middle East Division, Lama Fakih, said.
Property laws used for land expropriation in Wadi Barada
For a long time, the regime has deliberately seized vast lands in the towns and villages of Wadi Barada under the pretext of protecting the water source of Ain al-Fijeh Spring. The regime has passed numerous laws in this regard, lawyer Mohammed Hajar al-Omari told Enab Baladi.
Al-Omari explained that the seizure of the land surrounding the Ain al-Fijeh Spring had taken place in phases beginning in the 1970s. The regime’s government expropriated properties and houses of local owners and completely demolished them as part of its development plan to expand the spring’s land area. The government also prevented construction and restoration works in the area.
The regime seized vast areas in Wadi Barada under Law No. 10 of 1989, which defines the boundaries of the spring’s primary and secondary zones and the two water tunnels branching out from the spring to Damascus. The regime demolished most of the area’s buildings amid popular rejection, with some affected residents demanding compensation for their lost properties. Nevertheless, these demands remained mere ink on paper as the regime’s government disregarded their rights.
The Syrian revolution caused the regime to lose control over the Wadi Barada area. Backed by its allies, the regime managed to regain control of the area and focused its destructive policy on the villages of Ain al-Fijeh and Bassima. In early 2017, the regime reached a settlement agreement with the opposition factions, whose fighters were evicted to Syria’s north. The regime closed the entrances of Ain al-Fijeh, Bassima, and Ain al-Khadra by military barriers and prevented entrance to them except for its elements, who looted these villages and violated their residents’ property rights. The regime denied the residents entry to their areas for four years and continued its demolition operations to the houses and real estates of the residents to bring the area to the required condition fit for implementing Law No. 1 of 2018 regarding the expansion of the Ain al-Fijeh Spring’s two protected zones.
According to al-Omari, the reason behind issuing this law is to expand the primary and secondary zones of the Ain al-Fijeh Spring. The regime deliberately denied the residents’ return to their houses, destroyed their properties, and completely demolished them to utilize Article 7 of Law No. 1 of 2018 for its interest. Paragraph (a) of the same article stipulates that all banned works in the primary zone mentioned in Article 5 of Law No.1 of 2018 may be applied in the secondary zone around the Ain al-Fijeh Spring and the lands surrounding the two water tunnels branching out from the spring to Damascus. The status quo in the area shall be maintained upon the law’s issuance date through aerial photographs taken by an official authority in the Syrian Arab Republic.
The maintenance of the status quo indicates that affected people cannot claim any right contrary to the law, which allows the regime to appropriate new properties and lands estimated at more than half of Ain al-Fijeh within the primary zone of the spring, while the other half lies within the secondary zone.
Moreover, the regime’s government issued decisions to seize some opposition militants’ properties under accusations of terrorism. The seizure was followed by expropriation operations and forgery of property documents to take over the lands of those forcibly displaced from their properties.
Law No. 10 of 2018 came as an amendment to Legislative Decree No. 66 of 2012 to continue seizing whatever land left for the benefit of shareholding companies, al-Omari said.
Besides, Syrian citizens who fled to asylum countries would face significant difficulty upon claiming their seized properties, according to al-Omari.
Al-Omari pointed out the importance of the Wadi Barada areas expropriated by the regime in terms of their strategic location and outstanding nature. He said that the regime plans to invest in these areas through tourist projects to benefit its allies and collaborators.
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