Un­happy home­com­ing

Syr­ian regime says peo­ple safe to re­turn, but dis­placed are wary

7 Days in Dubai - - SPECIAL REPORT -

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 Al As­sad of us­ing un­der-ther­adar 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 said.

More than 11 mil­lion peo­ple, nearly half of Syria’s pop­u­la­tion, have been driven from their homes by the war since 2011, in­clud­ing 5 mil­lion who fled abroad as refugees.

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. 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.

Homs of­fers an in­di­ca­tion of the hur­dles for would-be re­turnees.

In 2014, Homs’ last ma­jor rebel neigh­bour­hoods, cen­tred 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 per cent have re­turned. That fig­ure is im­pos­si­ble to in­de­pen­dently con­firm.

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 neigh­bour­hoods,” said Abou Zeid, from the Ge­orge Chiyah neigh­bour­hood.

‘The fam­i­lies of the old city are still in ex­ile. You’ll find them all over the world’ – Homs res­i­dent Abou Zeid

EX­O­DUS: Fam­i­lies of anti-regime fight­ers leave their home­town in Homs. Inset, a dis­placed wo­man shows her de­serted street in the Baba Tad­mor neigh­bour­hood

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