Millions of Syrians are facing dispossession. Former rebel territories and the homes of those who have fled are being handed over to Assad loyalists. By Meret Michel and Mostafa Al-Shimali
When Amira Ali (not her real name) fled her home in Homs with her family in 2011, she left everything that meant something to her behind: her books, her clothes. And the big red teddy bear her boyfriend had given her on her birthday the year before. "We thought we would be returning soon," says Ali.
Today the Ali family lives in Baden-Wurttemberg. Amira and her boyfriend got married and want to stay in Germany. But her parents want to return to Syria as soon as the war is over. In Homs, even more so than elsewhere, the battle between the regime and the rebels quickly turned into a sectarian war between Assad's loyal Alawi and the Sunnis living there. The Alis are Sunnis but lived in Zahra, a predominantly Alawite district. After the family left its home, it was confiscated by a local Assad-loyal militia. The fighters plundered the belongings, cleaned out the house – and handed it over to an Alawite family.
Amira Ali's father tried to get the house back. He sent his brother to negotiate with the new residents. "They said they would speak only with the rightful owners," says Ali. Her father even contacted a lawyer in Damascus. However, due to the new regulation signed into law by President Bashar al-Assad on 2 April, Ali's family fears they may lose their claim to the house.
Millions of Syrians threatened with dispossession
"Law Number 10" is the most recent step taken by the regime to shape the future of Syria according to its own plans. The law lets the government declare any area of the country to be a building zone, in order to then re-develop it. Once an area has been thus designated, home-owners have one month to prove their ownership to the authorities. Otherwise, their house becomes the property of the state and can be publicly auctioned off. The law thus harbours the potential to dispossess millions of Syrians.
"Law Number 10 gives the regime free rein to re-structure every region of Syria," says Hamidi al-Hajji Hamidi from the Association of Independent Lawyers, located on the western outskirts of Aleppo, an area under opposition control. "The law particularly focusses on those associated with the opposition. It is a crime against all Syrians who were either driven from their homes or fled in fear of their lives."
Certificate of good conduct
Twelve million Syrians – more than half the population – have left their homes since the war broke out in 2011, seeking refuge inside or outside the country. Although Syrians abroad can authorise their relatives in the country to deal with the authorities, the family members need to present for them a certificate of good conduct from the police in order to claim possession. And those with ties to the opposition, and/or who took part in demonstrations against Assad in 2011, will hardly be able to obtain such a certificate.
"How are my parents supposed to submit their papers to the local administration when they're in Germany?" asks Amira Ali. She could send her uncle, who still lives in Syria, but he is afraid of potential reprisals if he asks about his relatives' home.