For displaced residents, returning to the city of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad does not appear feasible in the foreseeable future despite repeated official announcements suggesting otherwise. Rubble still obstructs movement in main and subsidiary streets, while the rehabilitation of infrastructure is still in its initial stages.
In late November, the Ministry of Local and Administration and Environment approved the start of planning and organisational studies for Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, as well as for Sabineh, Yalda, and Jaramana. According to the Rural Damascus Governorate’s Directorate for Decision Support and Regional Planning, these areas were selected because they had faced the most damage. Zoning plans for these areas are to be issued in accordance with Urban Planning Law No. 5 of 1982.
Located next to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is a city and the centre of a district that falls under the Rural Damascus Governorate. Its population before 2011 was about half a million people, according to official media, though some estimates say no more than 200,000 people lived in the city. Many residents were families displaced from the Quneitra Governorate as a result of the 1967 war and Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights. Much of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad is made up of informal housing and under-served neighbourhoods, making it a destination for low-income Syrians heading to Damascus from other parts of the country.
The city had faced widespread destruction when it was under opposition control in 2012-18 as a result of heavy airstrikes by regime forces and battles on the ground. The area remains largely deserted, as the Damascus Governorate prevents residents from entering without first obtaining security approval.
In September, the governor of Rural Damascus said that returns to Al-Hajar Al-Aswad would occur soon and that rehabilitation of the city was 85 percent complete. He added that the governorate had asked residents intent on returning to fill out special forms and to submit documents that would prove their property ownership in the city.
That same month, the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad City Council resumed receiving applications from displaced residents to return to the area in order to rehabilitate their homes. Each application must include documents confirming the applicant’s ownership of the property, as well as a family statement and copies of their personal ID cards. They must submit the application to the Al-Hajar Al-Aswad Municipal Office. Afterwards, security services study the file and issue either approve or reject the request to return. If the applicant is approved, they must then obtain a permit to rehabilitate their property from the municipality.
An activist from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad told The Syria Report that when he reentered the city for the first time in late 2020 to check on his house, demolition teams were still working to extract iron from damaged buildings. When he was allowed to visit again in mid-2021, he noticed a sharp increase in the scale of destruction to the neighbourhood surrounding his home. The activist said he feared for the safety of people’s properties, should the rubble removal operations expand without any monitoring from neutral parties.
The Rural Damascus Governorate announced in late 2020 that it would launch a project to rehabilitate homes in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad to coincide with residents’ return to the area. A technical committee subsequently revealed in early 2021 that 60 percent of houses in the city were suitable for rehabilitation. Later in September, the city council said that 90 percent of rubble had been removed from main streets and 65 per cent from subsidiary streets.
However, local sources who spoke with The Syria Report questioned the statistics reported by the governorate and city council. Many smaller neighbourhoods are still covered by rubble and work to remove it has halted. They added that work usually resumes for short periods of time, particularly during visits by Syrian officials who want to attract the attention of international NGOs to fund removal of the rubble and rehabilitation of destroyed areas.
A source from Al-Hajar Al-Aswad told The Syria Report that he had submitted more than one request to return home during the past year. He has yet to receive an answer, despite having obtained a number for his file. He added that repeated official announcements calling for such applications have not been accompanied by the processing of existing requests, indicating that the governorate and city council are not serious about returns.
There have been many recent announcements that rehabilitation work in Al-Hajar Al-Aswad had either begun or had been completed. In November, the General Establishment for Drinking Water and Sanitation installed two wells equipped with pumps and electrical generators. In September, a project was implemented in cooperation with the International Red Cross to maintain and replace the sewage line that passes through Al-Hajar Al-Aswad. The city council has also indicated that schools will be rehabilitated after residents return. Finally, the General Electricity Company in Rural Damascus began work to rehabilitate the electrical networks in the city in September.