Damascus ghost towns as Syrians flee violence and bulldozers

Persistent violence and house demolitions in Damascus have reshaped the city and turned hard-hit protest neighbourhoods into ghost towns.

While heavy shelling fighting has changed the face of some suburbs, authorties have also started to demolish illegal buildings in selective Damascs neighbourhoods — as one resident says: "One way or another my neighbourhood is going to be completely destroyed." Omar Al Khani / Reuters
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DAMASCUS // Persistent violence and house demolitions in Damascus have reshaped the city and turned hard-hit protest neighbourhoods into ghost towns as residents flee for the safety of the capital's safer districts.

What began with a trickle of families leaving their homes in search of temporary refuge in schools and parks, has now turned into a flood that is likely to change the city on a much more permanent basis, residents and analysts say.

With fighting in the capital showing no sign of abating, those with the financial means are trying to get out of danger areas and set-up new lives in safer zones.

The total number of Syrians displaced by the conflict is difficult to gauge, but according to UN figures as many as 200,000 have sought refuge in neighbouring countries. There are no accurate statistics for the population movements among greater Damascus's five-million residents but aid workers and residents say it is substantial, with 75 per cent of people fleeing some neighbourhoods.

Their efforts have taken on a greater urgency in recent weeks, with the authorities knocking down properties in Qaboun, Barzeh, Kafa Susa, Mezze Basatin, and Harasta - all areas synonymous with the rebellion - in what is expected to be a much broader demolition programme.

"Qaboun is a ghost town now, it's too sad, it used to be such a vibrant place, now it is empty and looks like a war zone, they've demolished a lot of the buildings near the motorway," said a woman who grew up in the neighbourhood. "Most of the shops don't bother opening any more because if they do everything just gets stolen."

About 40 per cent of Syria's 23-million population live in homes built without permission. In Damascus, urban planning authorities, paralysed by corruption and inefficiency, have been no match for dramatic population growth and rural-urban migration.

Vast swathes of the capital's most densely populated neighbourhoods are illegal - some resemble slums, others are as well built as officially permitted developments - but the government has put in basic infrastructure such as water, electricity, sewage facilities and schools, in tacit acceptance of the areas.

Now however, 18 months into an uprising against the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, officials have indicated they will enforce a law giving the authorities power demolish illegal buildings as part of the city's urban plan.

That enforcement has, thus far, been selective. Property in illegal areas broadly supportive of the regime remain unaffected, while key places involved in the uprising have already watched as bulldozers flattened scores of homes and shops erected without the proper permits.

Residents are braced for more.

"One way or another my neighbourhood is going to be completely destroyed - if the regime wins [the war], it will demolish everything, if it loses it will destroy everything trying to defeat the Free Syrian Army," said a Abu Mohammad, a long time resident of Qadam, a sprawling working class suburb in Damascus.

His flat is in a modest, illegally built apartment block, like those inhabited by much of Qadam's estimated 150,000 residents.

Qadam has seen heavy fighting between the rebel Free Syrian Army and regime forces, suffering mortar and tank fire. Officials recently announced it had been cleansed of "terrorists" - its term for armed rebel groups - but after a brief period of relative calm, shelling and gun battles have resumed.

"The government has the right to knock down all the illegal homes, I accept that," Abu Mohammad said. "But if it does it has a responsibility to find us somewhere else to live. I have no idea where it is going to put so many people if the demolitions continue, there will be thousands of people sleeping on the streets."

Opposition groups say the demolitions are collective punishment, accusing the authorities of trying to wipe rebel neighbourhoods off the map.

"If this was really about enforcing planning regulations as the government says, why aren't they demolishing Mezze 86 and Aish Al Warwar," said an activist, referring to districts renowned as staunchly pro-regime with majority Alawite populations - the same sect as the ruling elite.

Most of the protest areas subject to demolition are majority Sunni, a reminder of the increasingly sectarian nature of the conflict.

With just about enough money to afford a small flat elsewhere, Abu Mohammad, aged in his 50s, is trying to buy a house in Jeramana, a broadly pro-regime area to the east of the capital. Historically a Druze and Christian suburb, many middle class Sunnis have moved in during years of rapid expansion.

The reasoning behind Abu Mohammad's decision says much about the current crisis facing Syrians, as they try to weigh up relative risks.

"There have only been one or two bombs in Jeramana, it's really nothing," he said. "It's pro regime so while there might be sectarian violence eventually they are not going to shell it with artillery like they have done in Qadam. A bit of street fighting isn't as bad as shelling, at least you can lock the door."

Property prices, once high and stable across Damascus, have begun to fluctuate dramatically as its population shifts.

Qudsaya, formerly popular among upper middle class professionals unable to afford exorbitant city centre prices, has seen house values plummet following its emergence as a leading rebel area.

The owner of a flat purchased for SYP 3.3 million two years ago - US$69,000 at the time - is currently trying to sell it for SYP 1.7 million, or just US$23,600 at today's exchange rate.

But there have been no takers because mortar bombs have smashed a nearby building. "It's a nice flat but it will probably be blown up in the fighting," said a young professional man, given an option to buy.

Qaboun, Harasta, Douma, Daraya, Jobar - other rebelling areas - have also seen prices plummet as residents leave.

In contrast, Sahnaya, a middle class suburb on the southern edge of Damascus, has seen the local currency value of property prices rise, a typical unfinished flat increasing from SYP 3 million to more than SYP 4 million, although in US dollar terms prices are more or less stable.

Like Jeramana, it is historically Druze and Christian and has not joined the rebellion. As a consequence there has been little violence and it has become a desirable place to live, despite heavy shelling in neighbouring Daraya, two kilometres away. Residents say construction is booming - including illegal building and illegal well digging - all, so far at least, unpunished by the authorities.

"Some places in Damascus you cannot sell homes now matter how low your price, even speculators are staying away because they don't want to take the risk - one bomb and all your money has gone up in smoke," said a political analyst based in the capital, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"In others areas the prices are still high but it is hard to imagine any areas will escape the fighting forever," he said. "Places that are safe now may not be that way for long."