Dis­placed Syr­i­ans fear re­turn, mark­ing a de­mo­graphic shift

Dis­cour­ag­ing ‘dis­loyal’ pop­u­la­tion from re­turn­ing

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

BEIRUT: Syria’s gov­ern­ment says peo­ple who fled rebel zones that have since been re­taken by the mil­i­tary are now wel­come to re­turn. But that’s not how it worked out for one refugee fam­ily that came to check out the state of their home: They found an­other fam­ily had moved in. That’s just one of many hur­dles keep­ing away those dis­placed in Syria’s war. Many who fled say they fear ar­rest if they re­turn to homes now un­der gov­ern­ment con­trol or that their sons will be con­scripted into the same mil­i­tary that once bom­barded their towns. In other for­mer op­po­si­tion strongholds, the state is car­ry­ing out rede­vel­op­ment projects that have razed thou­sands of homes.

The op­po­si­tion ac­cuses the gov­ern­ment of Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad of us­ing un­der-the-radar meth­ods to dis­cour­age pop­u­la­tions it sees as dis­loyal from re­turn­ing, chang­ing the de­mo­graph­ics to help con­sol­i­date con­trol over a cor­ri­dor run­ning from Da­m­as­cus to the Mediter­ranean coast. The gov­ern­ment says it is do­ing all it can to bring peo­ple back. “The main goal of the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment is to re­turn all dis­placed Syr­i­ans to their homes,” Na­tional Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion Min­is­ter Ali Haidar told The As­so­ci­ated Press last month.

More than 11 mil­lion peo­ple, nearly half Syria’s pop­u­la­tion, have been driven from their homes by the war since 2011, in­clud­ing 5 mil­lion who fled abroad as refugees. The war still rages in many parts of the coun­try, and there is heavy de­struc­tion. In those con­di­tions, a mass re­turn is un­likely. So it is dif­fi­cult to mea­sure how much gov­ern­ment mea­sures are keep­ing op­po­si­tion-minded Syr­i­ans from re­turn­ing. But the fall of a num­ber of op­po­si­tion strongholds in re­cent months has brought to im­me­di­ate rel­e­vance the is­sue of who can come back. For ex­am­ple, a string of rebel, mainly Sunni Mus­lim sub­urbs around Da­m­as­cus have come un­der mil­i­tary con­trol. They were drained of much of their pop­u­la­tion as hun­dreds of thou­sands fled siege and bom­bard­ment in re­cent years. Now thou­sands more are leav­ing be­cause of gov­ern­ment con­trol. It is an open ques­tion whether they will ever re­turn. In Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, gov­ern­ment forces are be­sieg­ing the rebel east­ern dis­tricts, and the es­ti­mated 275,000 res­i­dents have re­fused calls to evac­u­ate, in part be­cause many are con­vinced they’ll never be al­lowed back.

Toxic sec­tar­ian as­pect

The fact that most of the peo­ple from rebel ar­eas are Sunni Mus­lims adds a toxic sec­tar­ian as­pect to the charges of de­mo­graphic ma­nip­u­la­tion. Sunni Mus­lims are the ma­jor­ity in Syria and make up the back­bone of the re­bel­lion, while mi­nori­ties have largely sup­ported As­sad, par­tic­u­larly mem­bers of his own Alaw­ite com­mu­nity, an off­shoot of Shi­ite Is­lam. Homs, Syria’s third largest city, of­fers an in­di­ca­tion of the hur­dles for wouldbe re­turnees. In 2014, Homs’ last ma­jor rebel neigh­bor­hoods, cen­tered in its Old City, sur­ren­dered. That came af­ter a long bru­tal siege that drove an es­ti­mated 300,000 from the city. Two years later, the gov­ern­ment says the Old City is open for res­i­dents, but even of­fi­cial sta­tis­tics say only 40 per­cent have re­turned. That fig­ure is im­pos­si­ble to in­de­pen­dently con­firm, and the op­po­si­tion be­lieves it is in­flated. On a visit to the Old City of Homs ear­lier this year, an AP team found a ghost town. More re­cently, AP in­ter­viewed six fam­i­lies ex­pelled from Homs’ old quar­ters, and only one could point to a rel­a­tive, among hun­dreds, who has re­turned. All those in­ter­viewed spoke on con­di­tion they only be iden­ti­fied by their first names for fear of reprisals by the gov­ern­ment.

“The fam­i­lies of the old city are still in ex­ile. To­day, you’ll find them all over the world, ex­cept in their neigh­bor­hoods,” said Abou Zeid, from the Ge­orge Chiyah neigh­bor­hood. Hoda, now liv­ing in the Le­banese city of Tripoli, said she was told she had to pay over­due bills be­fore she could see her Homs home. But she, like oth­ers, is deeply hes­i­tant to ap­proach state in­sti­tu­tions to do so or val­i­date her prop­erty records be­cause it means cross­ing through mul­ti­ple check­points run by the feared se­cu­rity ser­vices.

The dis­placed fear se­cu­rity forces will de­tain their hus­bands and sons for trumped-up crimes or con­script them into As­sad’s mil­i­tary. “We are not able to go back,” said Rabaa, who fled to Le­banon with her fam­ily in 2012. She has a 20-year-old son. “The first thing they’ll do is take him to the mil­i­tary,” she said. “Go see our home? No way.”

Fam­i­lies have also found oth­ers liv­ing in their homes. The ex­tent of such in­ci­dents is murky. The dis­placed say the ex­pro­pri­a­tion is wide­spread, but their re­ports can­not be in­de­pen­dently con­firmed. A pair of sis­ters, Maha and Um Alaa, de­scribed to the AP how they tried to check on Um Alaa’s apart­ment in the town of Tel Kha­lakh, a for­mer op­po­si­tion strong­hold 25 miles east of Homs. The sis­ters, now in Tripoli, spoke on con­di­tion they not be fully iden­ti­fied.

Maha vis­ited and found an­other fam­ily liv­ing there, she said. A loud ar­gu­ment en­sued, and Maha backed off, fear­ing that the gov­ern­ment would side with the squat­ter fam­ily. Um Alaa said her neigh­bors told her the fam­ily was from the nearby town of Hosn. Neigh­bors also said other dis­placed peo­ple had asked au­thor­i­ties in Tel Kalakh for places to live and were di­rected to houses of those who had fled, Um Alaa said. The fam­ily in the home could not be reached be­cause the land­line has been switched off.

Also, Um Alaa fears she and her hus­band won’t be able to re­claim their home be­cause they didn’t bring their prop­erty deed when they fled in 2014. “We thought we would only be gone a month,” she said. “We have noth­ing to prove it is ours.” Con­scrip­tion fears are also driv­ing res­i­dents out of for­mer op­po­si­tion strongholds. The gov­ern­ment de­nies that con­scrip­tion is a tac­tic to push dis­si­dents out, say­ing it a na­tional duty. “It’s a law that dates back to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Syr­ian state,” said Haidar, the na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion min­is­ter.

He said the mil­i­tary is ex­plor­ing ways around the predica­ment. For ex­am­ple, in some re­cap­tured ar­eas, the gov­ern­ment has of­fered to post­pone con­scripts’ de­ploy­ments for six months to a year. But many de­sert­ers and draft-dodgers view this as sim­ply a gov­ern­ment tac­tic to give them a dead­line to leave. “The im­pli­ca­tion is that ... in th­ese six months you get ev­ery­thing in or­der and flee, (and the mil­i­tary) will look the other way,” said Dani Qap­pani, an op­po­si­tion ac­tivist.

Gov­ern­ment siege

In the Da­m­as­cus sub­urb of Moad­amiyeh, for ex­am­ple, a third of the pop­u­la­tion of 50,000 fled dur­ing the gov­ern­ment siege. Af­ter the sub­urb sur­ren­dered in Septem­ber, some 10,000 more are likely to leave over the com­ing months for fear of con­scrip­tion, said Bassma Kod­mani, an op­po­si­tion of­fi­cial. Sim­i­larly, some 13,000 will prob­a­bly leave the Da­m­as­cus sub­urb of Qud­saya along with their fam­i­lies to avoid con­scrip­tion, said a for­mer fighter in Qud­saya. The fighter, who is wanted for mil­i­tary ser­vice, said he ap­proached au­thor­i­ties for the 6-month grace pe­riod and re­ceived it. He said that gives him time to sell his home and be­long­ings be­fore mov­ing with his wife and two chil­dren to the north­west prov­ince of Idlib, the main rebel-held ter­ri­tory. He spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause he has not yet left the gov­ern­ment-held area.

When the sub­urb of Daraya fell in Au­gust, all its last re­main­ing res­i­dents - around 2,700 from an orig­i­nal 250,00 - were re­moved and put in camps, rais­ing an out­cry from U.N. of­fi­cials over the pos­si­bil­ity of a forced dis­place­ment. The gov­ern­ment says they will even­tu­ally be al­lowed back. But Daraya could see the sort of ur­ban re­newal projects that ob­servers say are also a tool for de­mo­graphic en­gi­neer­ing.

A 2014 re­port by Hu­man Rights Watch iden­ti­fied seven op­po­si­tion neigh­bor­hoods around the coun­try razed by gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties for “rede­vel­op­ment.” It ac­cused au­thor­i­ties of car­ry­ing out col­lec­tive pun­ish­ment. Pres­i­den­tial De­cree 66, is­sued in 2012, lists a num­ber of ar­eas, mostly op­po­si­tion, for ur­ban re­newal projects in­volv­ing de­mol­ish­ing shan­ty­towns. “It serves an­other pur­pose: to pun­ish the un­ruly ar­eas, so you pacify them, and you change the de­mo­graphic,” said Rashad Al-Kat­tan, a po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst af­fil­i­ated with the Cen­ter for Syr­ian Stud­ies at the Univer­sity of St An­drews, in Scot­land.

In March, As­sad lay the cor­ner­stone for one such ren­o­va­tion project, in Da­m­as­cus’ work­ing­class Kafr Sousa and Basateen Al-Razeh neigh­bor­hoods. The project is to build or­derly new res­i­den­tial tow­ers. But op­po­si­tion out­lets say res­i­dents are be­ing pushed out. The Hu­man Rights Watch re­port said up to 3,000 res­i­den­tial build­ings had been de­mol­ished. De­cree 66 also au­tho­rizes sim­i­lar projects for Daraya, ac­cord­ing to the pro-gov­ern­ment busi­ness jour­nal Iqti­sad. Daraya and the other Sunni sub­urbs are highly strate­gic, said Kod­mani, with the op­po­si­tion’s High Ne­go­ti­a­tions Com­mit­tee. “If Da­m­as­cus is to be re­ally safe over the longer term, any pock­ets around Da­m­as­cus need to be made loyal.”

HOMS: A Syr­ian boy rides a bi­cy­cle through a dev­as­tated part of the old city.

— AP

BEIRUT: In this pic­ture taken on Fri­day, Oct 7, 2016, Syr­ian cit­i­zens at­tend a sit-in against the forced dis­place­ment in Syria, in front of the United Na­tions head­quar­ters.

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