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After The Buses: Life in a Government-Controlled Damascus Suburb

The Damascus suburb of Barzeh, once a thorn in the side of the Syrian government, has been under full government control for less than two months. Syria Deeply takes a look at the current situation in the neighborhood through the eyes of its remaining residents.

Written by Youmna al-Dimashqi Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
A handout picture released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on May 8, 2017, shows the first batch of militants and some of their family members leaving from Damascus’ Barzeh neighborhood following a deal to evacuate the area.AFP/SANA

Roughly two months have passed since a convoy of buses carried the final batch of fighters and their families out of the Damascus suburb of Barzeh to rebel-held parts of northern Syria as part of a deal between the government and insurgents. While the evacuations themselves were well documented, scant attention has been paid to how life in the district has altered since it came under full government control.

Barzeh residents who spoke to Syria Deeply say there have been significant changes in the neighborhood north of the capital. In some ways, things are returning to normal. Roads and markets have reopened and people are hesitantly beginning to return. However, many residents also live in fear of being arrested or conscripted in the army against their will. Families have been torn apart by forced displacement – and those who have returned say they don’t recognize the district anymore.

The Evacuation Deal

Rebels fighting under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took control of Barzeh, then home to more than 40,000 people, in late 2012. More than four years later, in mid-April 2017, pro-government forces emboldened by their victory in Aleppo launched a military operation to retake the area and eliminate small pockets of resistance around the capital.

President Bashar al-Assad tightened his siege of the neighborhood and pounded civilians with heavy airstrikes and artillery attacks for weeks. Barzeh’s starved and battered rebel groups were left with no other choice but to surrender on May 7 in exchange for safe passage to other opposition-held areas.

By May 29, Syrian government forces had regained complete control of the Barzeh district for the first time in years, after the final batch of fighters and their families were transported to rebel-held areas in Idlib and Aleppo province.

According to the state-affiliated Al Ikhabriya TV station, a total of 6,500 people, including fighters and their families, were evacuated from the neighborhood.

Impression of Stability

In the weeks after the final evacuations, the government attempted to return things to normal in the neighborhood: It reopened the strategic and economically vital road connecting Barzeh to central Damascus on June 9 for the first time in months, allowing employees and university students to commute to the center of the capital. It also opened the roads connecting Barzeh to the Tishreen military hospital and to the nearby government-controlled town of al-Tal, again according to Al-Ikhbariya.

The government also began working on restoring public services to Barzeh and discussed plans to rehabilitate schools and educational centers before the start of the school year during a city council meeting on July 9.

“The government is trying hard to create a state of stability,” said Rahaf, a 25-year-old Barzeh resident and mother who had to care for 18-month-old twins under a brutal siege. She told Syria Deeply that the government still had many checkpoints in and around the district but noted that residents were allowed more freedom of movement than they had under siege.

According to Rahaf, business is slowly improving. While unemployment is still rampant, fruit and vegetable vendors have reopened their stores and tailors have gone back to work, she said. Mechanics, electricians and repairmen have not been so lucky, however, due to a lack of supplies. “The market, in general, is a little better, but people cannot buy anything because they do not have any money,” Rahaf said.

Fear of Conscription

Despite the impression of growing stability, both residents who remained in Barzeh and those who were displaced worry about being arrested or conscripted against their will by government forces.

Reports that the regime has begun imposing mandatory conscription on young men in “reconciliation” areas have helped fuel these concerns. For example, the Syrian army forcibly conscripted 15 civilians in the nearby town of al-Tal on May 7 – only six months after a similar reconciliation deal was reached between government forces and rebel groups in the area.

“In recent days, some families who have relatives here have returned, but many others have not. They are scared that they might be arrested as soon as they return, just like those in the neighboring area of al-Tal,” Rahaf said.

“My husband has decided to stay, and he reached an agreement with the regime forces, but he is always worried that they might arrest him at any moment and force him to join them.”

Although there has been no direct evidence of forced military conscription, the pro-regime Qalamoun Shield militia that operates in Qalamoun and the wider Damascus countryside announced last week on its social media networks the recruitment of roughly 50 former Barzeh rebels into its ranks. The group also announced in a video uploaded on Facebook that it had opened a training center in Barzeh to prepare recruits for the “fight against terrorism.” Photos uploaded online showed fighters conducting combat training alongside the Syrian army.

It remains unknown whether the conscription was forced or consensual.

An Uneasy Return

Abed al-Rahman is 47-year-old Barzeh native who had fled to al-Tal when the government launched its offensive on Barzeh in April. He moved back to the embattled district with his wife and four children last month, when the government officially lifted its blockade on the neighborhood.

“There is nothing like being home,” he told Syria Deeply but noted that “home” did not look as it once had. He said that government checkpoints were now all over the neighborhood and internally displaced people from the suburbs of Qaboun and the besieged rebel enclave of Ghouta made up a sizable portion of the area’s population.

While Abed al-Rahman was fortunate enough to be able to return, for others it was not so easy.

Samar, a 48-year old Barzeh native who works in a women’s medical clinic in al-Tal, also decided to go back to Barzeh when the roads to the district reopened last month. But to her dismay, she found out that her home had been taken over by pro-government forces during the last offensive.

“We have no place to stay now, and we have to go back,” she said.

An ‘Unavoidable Void’

Umm Mohammad, 70, chose to stay in the neighborhood alongside her husband because she believes that the situation in Idlib would be no better than it is in Barzeh. She also said she wants to die in the same neighborhood where she was born and raised.

One daughter still resides in the neighborhood, but Um Mohammad has had to watch her four other children leave. Her two sons sought asylum in Holland and her two daughters left with their husbands to Idlib during the latest evacuations.

“I feel that our lives revolve around goodbyes,” she said. “Happiness has no place here.”

Her husband, Abu Mohammed, echoes the sentiment. “All of our friends left to Idlib. Even my children,” he said. “I am afraid we will never see them again.”

The elderly couple now live alone. They describe a monotonous life that affords them little joy.

“It is true that the situation is stable. The regime forces do their best to treat people well,” Umm Mohammad said. “But there is an unavoidable void left by those who have left.”

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