Toward the end of last year, officials in Damascus announced they were about to release reconstruction plans for Yarmouk camp and several other bombed-out suburbs of the Syrian capital.
Once Syria’s largest Palestinian community, home to about one-third of the total 560,000 Palestinian refugees residing in the country on the eve of the 2011 uprising, Yarmouk was ultimately laid waste by years of withering aerial bombardments and clashes, siege, and hardline Islamist control.
But how serious is the Syrian government about rebuilding a place once named the “capital” of the Palestinian diaspora? Despite repeated promises from officials in Damascus, plans for reconstruction of the camp, and return of its former residents, have been beset by delays and vague statements from those same officials. And a closer look at the available evidence suggests that many former residents may not be able to return — a result of unclear housing, land, and property (HLP) legislation and the Syrian government’s own punitive brand of reconstruction.
Addressing a planning meeting in December, Prime Minister Imad Khamis spoke as if to the people of Syria, saying the new reconstruction developments would “compensate you for the losses caused to your property by terrorism,” stressing that the “reconstruction movement will begin in both words and action.”
Shortly afterwards, contractors moved into the camp and small works started happening on the ground. In January, excavation works began to seemingly repair water pipes near Yarmouk St., the camp’s central street and one of three main thoroughfares running north to south through Yarmouk. Photos shared online appear to show a digger excavating the roadside, while a series of ditches were also dug a few streets away. Geo-location of the images identifies the area as a northwestern neighborhood of the camp that was once home to a concrete water tower known locally as “Mashrou’ Waseem.” The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, a London-based watchdog focusing on the country's Palestinian communities, reported that the works would “repair the main water tank in the area.”
The camp’s deserted streets were left untouched, as were the rows and rows of empty houses, collapsed and folded-in on themselves. Nobody from Yarmouk really knows when they will be fixed.
For some former residents, the sight of diggers and ditches was a positive sign that the Syrian government was finally getting serious about rehabilitating the camp, two years after it was returned to Syrian government control through a combination of military might and negotiated evacuations.
In the diaspora, Palestinian refugees who spent their lives in Yarmouk now wait for news. Facebook in particular has become a kind of village notice-board: those still living in Damascus — who can still get the necessary security permission to enter the camp and check on their homes— share videos and pictures of what they've seen. Others share sabahaat morning greetings and prayers, or old photographs remembering what Yarmouk once was.
“Things are moving toward preparations for the people [of the camp] to return,” one former camp resident, sharing pictures of the Mashrou’ Waseem excavations, posted on a popular Yarmouk Facebook group in late January.
“Ya rab,” read a lot of the replies, using a common Arabic expression of awe, hope, or surprise.
Many of those commenting do so from a new diaspora of more than a hundred thousand Palestinian refugees who’ve fled Syria since 2011 and are now dispersed around the world — from Qudsaya to Beirut, Berlin to Toronto.
“We are waiting patiently," one commenter in Europe wrote. “Relief will come soon, God willing.”
Talking about water pipes might seem like a bit of a ridiculous task, absurd in its granularity. But away from the endless official planning documents of glitzy skyscrapers rising out of the ashes of Syria’s war, this is all too often the real story of the country’s reconstruction. Rebuilding is slow, repairs often small-scale and mostly carried out by groups of local residents or community figures. And progress on the ground until now has been negligible — especially in areas formerly held by opposition or hardline Islamist groups, like Yarmouk, which have been emptied and completely devastated during the course of the conflict.
So far, the signs suggest that many of those patiently waiting for news about their homes will ultimately be denied ownership and return.
“Return is now very close”
Yarmouk has been close to empty for years.
Slowly dragged into the uprising between 2011 and 2012, residents started to flee as the burgeoning conflict edged closer. In December 2012, a Syrian MiG jet bombarded the camp and killed dozens of civilians. The emptying of the camp followed — within days, many residents had fled into Damascus. Some began to look to neighboring countries, or even Europe.
Catastrophe followed catastrophe. Rebel control was unpredictable and chaotic. Eventually hardline Islamists moved in, culminating in the April 2015 takeover by ISIS, while Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) fighters maintained a foothold in the north of Yarmouk.
ISIS lorded over the camp with brutal force, assassinating and executing activists and civil society workers, and imposing its brutal interpretation of shari’a over the barely 6,000 residents who stayed on.
The Syrian government and its allies finally moved on ISIS in April 2018, launching a major offensive with the help of Palestinian militias and Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as Russian airpower. Whole areas of the camp were flattened. Remaining residents disappeared under the rubble. The offensive lasted a month, when ISIS and HTS fighters accepted evacuations. Neighboring rebel-held suburbs also submitted to forcible evacuations north.
Almost immediately after, pro-government fighters went in and looted just about everything they could find: kitchen appliances, copper wiring, even the frames of the windows and doors. Former residents going to check on their homes found soldiers looting their belongings. Even some senior figures in loyalist Palestinian militias were angered by what they saw.
It all seemed like a far cry from the promises made by Syrian and Palestinian officials in Damascus, but there were already some indications elsewhere in the capital about what reconstruction might actually look like.
In a formerly working-class area, on an undeveloped patch of land on the outskirts of south-west Damascus, the towering building site that will one day become “Marota City” shows what Damascus has in mind for its future. Residents of the area, which was formerly known as Basateen al-Razi, were invited — and then eventually coerced — to leave after Decree 66 was passed by Bashar al-Assad in 2012. They had been promised compensation and social housing in return, but that didn’t always come. Farmland was bulldozed and homes razed to make way for the development. This was not post-war reconstruction, but regulated redevelopment of areas that were almost untouched by the conflict. So while government supporters are quick to point to “Marota City” as a sign of what's to come, this is not really a reconstruction project per se.
Decree 66 became the blueprint for Law 10 for the year 2018, the main piece of legislation which the Syrian government intends to use for rezoning and reconstructing war-damaged areas. But it is not the only one. Since 2011, the Syrian government has passed dozens of laws governing HLP rights; laws that can be used to do everything from clear rubble and demolish damaged buildings to rezone whole neighborhoods and expropriate properties on flimsy grounds of counter-terrorism.
Yarmouk is now one of just a handful of former opposition-held areas of the Syrian capital that have been slated for controversial redevelopment plans under Law 10. And yet there are no indications that the excavation works from January were part of a state-led plan, and previous rubble clearance works were carried out by the General Administration for Palestinian Arab Refugees (GAPAR), the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and local volunteers. As for Yarmouk, unlike other areas slated for reconstruction, there have been no maps released, no renderings, no videos. Recent media reports suggest surveys of damaged housing have begun, although it was not possible to independently verify this. Even the UN agencies that would cooperate with the Syrian government on rehabilitating Yarmouk in the future do not know the content of the supposed plans.
To date, the most detailed explanation of what the future reconstruction of Yarmouk might look like can be found in a 15-minute Sham FM interview with Samir al-Jaza’irli, a Damascus province planning official who has taken the lead on the Yarmouk file in recent months. The interview aired on the Damascus-based radio station in March.
According to al-Jaza’irli, there were originally three plans being considered for Yarmouk. One would rehabilitate some streets and rebuild the areas that sustained the most damage; the second would maintain an area of Yarmouk known as the “Old Camp” while launching an “organizational process” for the worst-affected areas; and the third would impose a similar organizational process over the entire camp.
That “organizational process” (‘amaliyeh tanzeemiyeh) was almost certainly Damascus-speak for Law 10, meaning the three plans were effectively a choice over the varying degrees of severity of reconstruction: minor rehabilitation, rehabilitation and reconstruction, or total reconstruction.
We now know that the Syrian government selected the second plan — back in January, pro-government daily al-Watan quoted Damascus Governor Adel al-Olabi as saying that a plan selected for Yarmouk would “prioritize the return of the largest number of Yarmouk residents … to their homes as soon as possible,” adding that the plan aimed to repair the “central area of Yarmouk, which has [sustained] the most damage.”
Initially it appears that, with that decision, Yarmouk would be spared the fate of “redevelopment” seen in Basateen al-Razi, through which mostly working-class homes and back-street grocery stores will be transformed into Gulf-style luxury apartment blocks. And yet the finer details that make up the second plan are still vague.
According to al-Jaza’irli, the plan will involve a "particular amendment to Yarmouk St., after which we will begin the return of residents to housing that is still suitable [for habitation], subject to them proving ownership and obtaining the necessary approvals.”
“Return is now very close,” he added.
But there’s still very little for former camp residents to go on.
At one point, the Sham FM interviewer starts to ask for a timeline: “You said that return will happen very soon—.”
“—Very soon, very soon,” al-Jaza’irli interjects.
The interviewer pushes him. “But how soon? How many months?”
“Soon,” al-Jaza’irli stalls, “in a few months.”
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on an already devastated Syrian economy, will certainly delay reconstruction plans in Damascus, along with any post-war recovery planned for government-held areas of the country. Urban planning offices working on developments, including those for Yarmouk, reportedly closed in recent weeks as part of the preventive measures imposed by the central government.
Residents may have to wait even longer.
After the catastrophe
Yarmouk camp was originally established in 1957, accommodating Palestinian families who’d fled their homes in northern Palestine during the 1948 nakba (“catastrophe”) that saw the destruction of some three-quarters of Palestinian society at the hands of Zionist militia groups. The way that these new refugees lived in the immediate aftermath was testament to that catastrophe. Refugees newly arrived in Syria found shelter wherever they could — in hastily assembled tent settlements on the outskirts of the cities, mosques, and (for the few with the financial means) rented housing.
New arrivals to the area included merchant families from key urban centers in northern Palestine, such as Haifa and Safad, as well as poorer Palestinians from the hilltop agricultural villages of the Galilee. The “Old Camp,” the very first area of Yarmouk to be built, remembered these roots in some of its street names: Loubia, Safad, and Palestine.
By 1957, a fledgling semi-official ministry set up by the Syrian government to govern Palestinian affairs in the country had procured plots of land on the outskirts of several Syrian cities. In southern Damascus, the Palestine Arab Refugee Institution (later renamed GAPAR, its name until today) made use of land officially expropriated from several landowning Damascene families, and Yarmouk sprung up. UNRWA, a UN agency assisting Palestinian refugees since its foundation in 1949, cooperated with GAPAR in building shelter and providing services to these new communities.
Under Syrian law, Palestinians were given the right to own property, and even though there were some restrictions this was still in stark contrast to the rights of refugees in other neighboring countries (particularly Lebanon). Over the years, Yarmouk became a model for a different kind of Palestinian community. From the 1960s onwards, the camp had its own municipality that officially integrated it into the city of Damascus, while the camp also integrated with working-class Syrian suburbs spreading out on the southern reaches of the city. Yarmouk ultimately became so integrated into the body-politic of Damascus that by 2011, Palestinians were actually in the minority — about 30 percent of the wider camp’s population were Palestinian, compared to 70 percent of the Syrians who’d made Yarmouk (and the surrounding area) their home. Although many of Yarmouk’s streets, families, and civil society movements preserved its Palestinian identity, by 2011, Greater Yarmouk was demographically more Syrian than it was Palestinian.
Partly as a result, Yarmouk's built-environment (and the legal HLP landscape governing it) also shared many of the characteristics of neighboring, ostensibly Syrian, areas. After the foundation of Yarmouk on the site of the Old Camp, an area with its own legal zone, much of the subsequent construction outside it, to accommodate Palestinian families and incoming Syrian migrants, was informal and unplanned. Incoming rural-urban migrants from the countryside and provincial towns and cities settled on the outskirts of Damascus, in neighborhoods like Hajar al-Aswad, al-Tadamon, and Babila — all on the eastern or southern peripheries of Yarmouk.
Crucially, the Syrian government never really decided what to do with these informal settlements that were already sprawling out from the outskirts of major towns and cities before the 2011 uprising. As a result, the ways that properties were both built and owned were also informal and chaotic.
Yarmouk became a complex web of different models of ownership. Aside from the relatively small number of people who actually owned the plot of land on which they lived, or those residents of the Old Camp (which is legally distinct from other areas), many families in Yarmouk owned informally built homes through court orders or even electricity bills. Others may never have properly regularized their properties in the eyes of the authorities.
This all meant that residents of one street, or even one building, might own their house through different documents — a fact made all the more complicated once a building was actually destroyed, or so badly damaged that the authorities may demolish it in the future.
After years of war, resolving this level of complexity in HLP rights is no mean feat — in addition to the fact that many families simply do not have the documents necessary to verify ownership of their homes anymore, and that the Syrian government may not even be interested in allowing for the return of whole swathes of the community anyway. Palestinian refugees are subject to different property ownership rules in Syria than Syrian nationals, and it still is not clear how the Syrian government will integrate that legislation into newer HLP and reconstruction-related laws.
The Syrian government has also taken it upon itself to use HLP legislation authorizing rubble clearance, destruction of damaged property, or expropriation of property owned by terrorism suspects to raze buildings that could have been salvaged. This legislation is already being used to arbitrarily punish and disown perceived supporters of the opposition in different areas of Damascus.
Given implementation of Law 10 and other HLP-related legislation so far, it is likely that much of what was Yarmouk outside the boundaries of the Old Camp will not be rebuilt as it was.
Since Yarmouk was returned to government control, the camp has remained almost totally uninhabited — except for one corner saved much of the devastation, where signs of life are slowly re-emerging: the Old Camp.
The Old Camp is already home to a small community of Palestinians, estimated in the hundreds, who’ve been permitted by authorities to return.
According to humanitarian sources and displaced activists from Yarmouk, these families are there largely by virtue of their connections to pro-government militias — including the Free Palestine Movement and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC), both of which played leading roles in the 2018 offensive.
Recently returned residents also include elderly Palestinians with close family links to the original inhabitants of the Old Camp.
Ever since the end of the pro-government offensive, when former residents started going into the camp to check on the damage done, people have been saying that the Old Camp was in relatively better condition than anywhere else. That meant that small-scale returns could begin within a matter of months.
Despite the freshly swept streets, life in the Old Camp isn’t all peachy. Since the onset of a nationwide COVID-19 outbreak, and the resulting economic crisis, residents in the camp are said to be struggling to access basic supplies. And according to the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, Palestinian activists have turned on the Ramallah-based PLO, arguing that its role in Yarmouk has been “limited to distributing bread and cleaning products, and taking pictures during the distributions.”
That fledgling community between Safad St. and Loubia St. is an insight into the future of Yarmouk — at least in the short to medium term.
Even so, hundreds of thousands of displaced former residents of Yarmouk either in Damascus or the diaspora more broadly are now running out of patience. And this is not a phenomenon exclusive to the camp.
“What can we do but wait?”
Reconstruction plans for al-Qaboun in eastern Damascus were due to be unveiled on a similar timeline to those of Yarmouk, with a slated release for late January that was also delayed.
An area once home to factories, warehouses, and small crafts-based businesses in a urban sprawl between Damascus proper and the suburbs of the Eastern Ghouta, al-Qaboun would be an important area for the capital. There was already a process underway by which former residents and property owners could register their lots, and also express complaints about the process. Officials in Damascus had previously said that residents would be listened to.
In late February, however, an industrialists association representing loyalist business-owners from al-Qaboun took the unprecedented step of issuing a public statement expressing its misgivings about the plans. According to Syria In Context, a weekly research briefing, “700 business owners submitted comments through the consultation process last year, highlighting that they did not believe their buildings and factories were damaged to the extent the government did.” The association claimed Damascus had “exaggerated the damage to the buildings in order to continue with their plan to push [businesses] out.”
This made the timing of al-Jaza’irli’s interview somewhat interesting. Criticism of delays to Yarmouk's reconstruction was also growing. And after that little flurry of excitement following the sighting of the diggers, former residents — including those supportive of the plans — appeared to be waning in their enthusiasm.
“We’re waiting and what else can we do but wait?” one person wrote.
Days after the al-Qaboun industrialists’ statement, al-Jaza’irli’s radio spot had the air of crisis management. At the end of the interview on Sham FM, the interviewer took questions from listeners — a kind of direct democracy over the airwaves that has grown in popularity in Syria in recent years.
Explicit criticisms of government policy like this, in public, are rare in Syria. Still, that doesn’t mean they do not happen.
The criticisms haven’t gone away. A public statement representing displaced former residents from Hajar al-Aswad, a working-class neighborhood immediately to the south of what was Yarmouk camp, recently appealed to “decision-makers in the government to help [the displaced] return to their homes and secure infrastructure.”
The justifications for the statement echo those of displaced residents from Yarmouk, in part because Hajar al-Aswad was retaken from ISIS during the same spring 2018 offensive.
“[Hajar al-Aswad] has been free of terrorism for two years,” while “living conditions have deteriorated because of rising rents as well as the halting of most work as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement added.
But people are still waiting.
Recently, another former Yarmouk resident shared a post on Facebook, a doctored image showing an imagined birds-eye view overlooking some cityscape of the future. It almost looks like some of the planning documents released by Damascus that envision Syria's supposed future: the streets are wide and clean, pristine; landscaped gardens stretch out in between tall, resplendent buildings.
But that’s not the future that everyone wants.
“Yarmouk camp,” the comment reads. “Their dream, or our end?"
Tom Rollins is an independent journalist and researcher with several years’ experience working in the Middle East. In the coming months, he will shortly release two co-authored studies on Palestinian-Syrian refugees’ legal vulnerabilities and a post-2011 history of Syria’s Palestinian community. Follow him at @TomWRollins. The views expressed in this piece are his own.
Photo by LOUAI BESHARA/AFP via Getty Images