News of the Syrian regime’s use of violence, siege and destruction as a tool for controlling territories and their inhabitants has become common knowledge in recent years. However, the use of administrative and legislative powers to control people’s mobility and residency often goes unnoted in the media.
There have been instances where official paper archives were destroyed due to fighting and destruction around public buildings. While trying to prove ownership of a house is a tedious task in those cases - depending on the cooperation of government employees - trying to buy or sell any property in those circumstances is next to impossible. This means the owners lose their ability to invest, or even use the property.
Umm Ahmad1 (52) has been living in her brother-in-law’s house in the Malʻab area of Homs for over two years now. Her home was in the Hamidiyyah neighborhood in the Old City of Homs. When attacks and shelling escalated in 2012, she and her family left temporarily to stay with her daughter who was living in al-Waʻer, then a safer neighborhood. After the regime closed off the Old City in a siege starting June 2012, Umm Ahmad could no longer return to her house.
It took almost two years until the siege was lifted for Umm Ahmad to check up on her house and see for herself what had happened to it. Ahmad, her eldest son who now lives in France, told SyriaUntold: “She arrived at our house to find a family walking out of it with our washing machine! When she protested they argued that she does not have the house ownership papers on her, and threw around some claims about being affiliated with a regime militia as they walked away with it.”
As the siege and shelling on al-Waʻer intensified, they had to leave the area and were lucky enough to have a relative living abroad that owns a house in Malʻab, a safe neighborhood.
Permits and Services
Today, almost three years after the regime lifted the siege, access to the Old City is still heavily restricted and requires prior permits in advance, as confirmed by numerous residents. Even when Umm Ahmad does manage to visit the house, she is not allowed to move back in. Since her son Ahmad fled the country to avoid military drafting, the family is denied security permits because a member is ʻwantedʼ (matlub) by the authorities.
“Any family with a wanted member is not allowed in,” said Ahmad, “it doesn't have to be a son, it could be a cousin or a distant relative with the same family name. The larger family would all be denied permission to go back to their houses.”
But permits are not the only obstacle facing those who wish to return to the Old City. Repairing infrastructure has also been a very slow, corrupt and selective process in old Homs. In many areas, the rubble has not yet been cleared out, and water and power supply not restored.
Many complain that much of the funds the regime has received from the UN and other international aid agencies is going into its own pockets “after repairing a street or two for the cameras,” according to Abu Walid (32), a father of three and an opposition media activist from Khalidiyyah.
Abu Walid also told SyriaUntold of the doubts many have as to which neighborhoods in the Old City have been restored and which have been neglected, pointing out to a preferential agenda with sectarian overtones that could be affecting the selection; in particular, he referred to Hamidiyyah, a largely Christian area, as one of the privileged neighborhoods.
Governing Real Estate with Security Permits
Had Umm Ahmad not been lucky enough to have a wealthy relative, she might have been forced to move to another city that still has some empty housing and at least semi-functional services.
However, the regime is practically preventing resettlement on political grounds. “It is impossible to get a rent security clearance for a Homsian to rent in Damascus,” said Rami, whose mother failed to rent her house in a Damascene suburb to a family from Homs, which is still considered a restive province.
“The security clearance needs to be approved by all 13 [security] branches in Damascus now,” continued Rami. This process was established in 2013 as a regime tool to control and monitor mobility and resettlement. Today, Syrians wanting to sell, rent or even just lend their house need first to get approval from security forces for both themselves as well as the tenants. Needless to say, none of these procedures are regulated by official law.
“If you have any doubts you might be wanted by the regime, you better sell your property or rent it long term while you can [before a new change in informal regulations],” said Umm Ayman (63), who has recently sold her children's two houses in Damascus, as they live abroad. Nonetheless, wanted Syrians who live abroad have really slim chances to get security clearance and sell or rent their properties via an attorney.
“It’s not safe to leave houses empty, and administrative procedures are becoming ridiculously impossible. For example, the registry certificate used to be valid for 6 months from date of issue, now it’s only valid for 72 hours. Every step in the long permit and contractual process, you need to issue a new one, with new stamps paid for reconstruction and military efforts each time,” continued Umm Ayman. The civil registry certificate is a requirement in almost any paperwork as a form of identification; as many other bureaucratic procedures, its renewal depends on oral instructions and leaves plenty of room for corruption. Stamps for reconstruction and ʻmilitary effortsʼ (majhood harbiyy) have been recently introduced in Syria's state paperwork.
Umm Ayman said she was the one that advised her children to sell off their property, knowing they will not be returning to the country in the near future. “I know the price does very little for him [her son] in the US now with the currency inflation, but at least I know I can still sell it for him using the General Legal Authorization [al-wakala al-ʻammah] he gave me before leaving. Rumors are that soon they will cancel that too for anyone living abroad!”
To Stay or to Leave
Today, with so many residential areas destroyed or rendered unsafe and dysfunctional, many Syrian families are faced with the challenge of having to pay double or triple a university graduate’s salary to rent a house for which they can barely get a security permit. The randomly collapsing currency means most landlords require at least six if not 12 months down payment.
Some families have found it a wiser investment for what little savings they have left to use them to flee the country all together. With no solution in sight in the foreseeable future, living conditions getting worse with every season, some say renting a house in their own country feels as challenging and “illegal” as paying their way into asylum in Europe.
[Main Photo: Homs City Center - 2-5-2014 (Lens Young Homsi Facebook Page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].