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