Syrian's Victims of Rigid Property Registration Laws

14 December 2008

Syria_news-Badruddin Awf was 29 in 1960 when the government decided to expropriate several historical quarters south of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus and, in the process, changed the course of his life.

Mr. Awf, The chairman of the ‘Committee to Revive Ancient Damascus’ is still battling bureaucracy to repeal the decision to expropriate the el-Hamrawi, el-Naqqashat and el-Masbagha-l Khadra quarters together with the network of narrow lanes that connect them.  The express intention of the decision was to demolish the existing buildings and construct a modern marketplace in their stead.  That was almost half a century ago.  Meanwhile, the walls and roofs of the old houses there continue to crack and collapse, sometimes bringing down the entire structures they support.

The Governorate of Damascus insists it will not repeal decision 281, citing its desire to avoid the socio-economic ramifications of such a move. It is sticking to this position despite seven draft laws introduced by the People’s Council, Syria’s Parliament, to repeal the decision – including the draft decision of 1982 which “was … proposed upon the instructions of the President of the Republic to the Secretary of the Party’s Damascus Branch”  – and despite recommendations from both governmental and non-governmental agencies as well as a UNESCO decision declaring the Ancient city a protected historical site and prohibiting all demolition, building, restoration and road construction activities within the city’s old walls.

Like Bassam, an employee of the “Maghazel” (spinning and weaving) company, most of the residents of the el-Hamrawi quarter depend on the living of a very modest job.  Like him, they all suffer from chronic anxiety about what the future has in store for them.  Bassam’s only possession is a bicycle that takes him to and back from work.  He remains awake at night unable to sleep fearing that the walls of his home will collapse on top of his three children!

What keeps the walls from caving in are the wooden supports that the Damascus governorate provided for most of the houses in the el-Hamrawi quarter, including the home of Lutfia Al-Ustuwani.  Her body was dug out of the rubble after her house collapsed on top of her.  Like everyone else in the quarter, she was forbidden by the Expropriation Law from repairing it and one day it simply came down.

Since that incident, the residents of the 74 homes – almost all of them housing two and sometimes up to five families – and the 56 shops in these expropriated quarters all live with insecurity and injustice.  The expropriation law was enacted with the express intention of building a modern market and to all of these people, this has meant material loss since they are unable to invest in or benefit from their homes like the residents of other quarters in Damascus.

Between Two Worlds

Consider the residents of neighboring Qeimarieh, which was turned overnight into a tourist destination. 51 shops and 6 six restaurants – and a seventh under construction – are scattered over the entire quarter, and each shop provides at least two job opportunities while the restaurants may depending on their size, provide 26 to 60 jobs.

Issam owns one of the “Qeimarieh” cafes.  He explains: “Ten years ago this street in “Qeimarieh” had only 2 shops.   This new vision for Ancient Damascus has transformed it into a destination for both tourists and locals alike.”  According to some estimates, the income of shop and restaurant owners there varies from 40,000 Syrian Lira ($800) to half a million Lira ($10,000) a month.   It should be kept in mind that other investments in ‘developed’ areas of Ancient Damascus may see a return of multiples of these figures, depending on the nature, size and location of the project.

Except for the Expropriation

According to Adel, an experienced investor who owns several restaurants, one square meter of what he calls ‘skeletal’ buildings in Ancient Damascus – defined as basic constructions not located on main road – sells for SL 100,000 today.  This means that the minimum price for the Hamrawi quarter, which is 5,736 square meters in total area, would be around  573,600,000 SL ($11,472,000).  It only takes El-Hamrawi residents to look at the collective worth of their homes to realize that if that money were deposited in a bank account at an 8% interest rate, they would receive 45,888,000 SL in income from that interest or if they were able to start tourist projects today the income from those projects would – in six years’ time – equal the worth of their homes.

Of course, the value of these homes when expropriated was much lower than the current going price, according to the residents . In 1975, the value of Abdullah’s house and two shops was estimated at 13,000 SL , while the figures now stand at 400,000 SL for a house and 1,000,000 SL for a shop. Compensation for the expropriated property was paid through the bank back then, but only those owners who were living outside the quarter accepted and received payment.  Those who received compensation comprised only 10% of the residents.  The rest refused to accept this extremely small amount of money in lieu of ownership.

The residents confirm that because their homes are located in a historically and archaeologically rich area, the governorate does not take into consideration their attachment to that part of the city nor their homes nor their moral and historical value.  In their view, no financial compensation would be fair, even if it is pegged at true market value, let alone at these rates! Losses for Both the State and the Citizen

Losses for Both the State and the Citizen

Tens of decisions were taken to expropriate 4,500 properties in Damascus and its rural environs, all of them focused on 30 areas and quarters, among them the El-Hamrawi quarter, Qassioun, Bab Tuma, Al-Ma’damieh, and Al-Ghuzlanieh.  Yet only a small number of these decisions have actually been implemented.  Bureaucracy has kept the others in limbo.  The last committee appointed by the People’s Council recommended the repeal of most of the expropriations and that those affected by the decisions be compensated fairly and at current prices.

As for the Hamrawi quarter, in a letter addressed to the Prime Minister in 1994, the Ministry of the Economy said the citizens have had to bear great losses as a result of a decision that has not been executed and yet forces them to cease all businesses and other activities and desist from investing or even repairing any property in that quarter.

Former minister of the Economy, Dr. Mohammad Al-Amady, said:  “This expropriation has been detrimental to the businesses of the owners and to the occupants of these properties and it has prevented them from repairing and renovating them despite the historical importance of the area.”  He demanded the “removal of the injustice that has been done to citizens who were not party to the decision but nevertheless had to bear great losses as a result of the fact that it has neither been implemented nor repealed.”

The president of the People’s Council’s Committee on Expropriation, Deputy Hunein Nimr, finds that “one of the dilemmas of expropriation is that it leads to the freezing of projects and growth even though the State has incurred losses as a result, the loss to the citizen is much greater.”

Badruddin’s Briefcase

Mr. Awf carries his small briefcase wherever he goes.  In it, he carries a copy of every single official paper or document that was written or issued on the subject starting in 1960.  As such, it documents the suffering of the residents of El-Hamrawi.  Over the course of those 47 years, he has gathered more than 2,000 documents, one of which confirms that in a 1975 resolution, UNESCO declared Ancient Damascus a World Heritage site that must be protected and undamaged in any way or form.  Another document issued by the Syrian Ministry of Culture forbids expropriation of properties within the old walls of Damascus, as per Resolution No. 192 of 1976.  In addition, there are demands by other parties to repeal the expropriation decisions.

The Legal Association found that “40 years have passed without the decisions being implemented and in view of the enormous harm they have caused, these expropriations must be reversed and the case filed by some citizens must be closed, with some payments made towards that end.”

Economic Logic

The Engineering Association, in its letter ref. 296 of 2006 addresses the historical architectural expert point of view:  “This decision will destroy the historical and archaeological identity of the area, and will mar the cultural and heritage memory of the buildings in these locations.”

Hisham Khayyat, an economic researcher, addresses the economic perspective:  “When investments are suspended for a certain period of time, they fail.  Here there are properties which were deprived of investment opportunities and renovation for half a century, incurring great losses.  In addition, Ancient Damascus plays a vital role in attracting tourists, and it would therefore be very difficult to assess the financial losses resulting from the expropriation decision.”

A Ministry of Tourism appeal in 1994 confirms this, citing the ‘touristic’ importance of the area and stressing the “necessity of repealing the expropriation in order to allow owners to maintain and renovate their properties in line with other buildings in Ancient Damascus, frequented as the area is by tourists and visitors from every part of the world.”

A Look at the Past

In 1960, when the Vice President of the United Arab Republic, Field Marshal Abdul-Hakim Amer, expropriated the Hamrawi, Old Goldsmiths, El-Qabaqbieh, Green Dyeworks and El-Naqqashat, it was intended that a modern shopping centre would be constructed to house the goldsmiths whose ‘souk’ had been gutted by a terrible fire.  The governorate, nevertheless, provided those goldsmiths with substitute shops in the Hariqa and the Takiyyet Al-Suleimanieh areas.  According to Badreddin and other El-Hamrawi residents, none of the goldsmiths who had lost their shops resided in El-Hamrawi anyway and they were all moved to new premises at the time of the expropriation decision.  As such, there was no reason for the expropriation decision to go through since all the goldsmiths had been resettled in those two new areas.

Understandably, the various proposals that have been tabled to repeal the decision all focus on the fact that the aim of expropriation was meant to fulfill is now null and void.  In 2004, the Ministry of Culture drafted an edict – decision number 3977/3449 S/16 – to repeal the expropriations on that basis.  The draft referred to the confirmation of official governmental agencies, professional associations and civil society organizations in Syria of the necessity of repealing Decision No. 281 0f 1960 and reinstating ownership of the properties.

No Going Back on the Decision

The Director of the Governorate of Damascus’s Architectural Organization and Planning Department, Abdul-Fattah Iyasou, said that the last development in the case of Al-Hamrawi was the April 21, 2006 decision of the Council of Ministers rejecting the repeal of the expropriations.  Mr. Iyasou claims that this was meant to evade social and economic complications, as only seven of the original 1960 occupants of the properties were still around. Iyasou did not elaborate except to say that this referred to original occupants verses their heirs.

This reporter went back to the governorate to try to find out the names of the original occupants who had received approval to remain in El-Hamrawi; approval which was conditional on the properties being used for residential purposes only. But the mission was futile, because according to several Department of Expropriation employees, keeping these names is not part of the responsibilities of the governorate.  Iyasou, on the other hand, estimated that about 50% of the current occupants are squatters, not original owners.  The committee that had been appointed a few months earlier was thus charged with providing substitute housing for the squatters while repairing the homes of original owners still in residence there.

The residents of Hamrawi deny this outright and confirm that most – not only seven – of the residents are descendants of the original owners of the properties there.  They named the families: Awf, Tinawi, Zar’i, Quseibati, Fawakhiri, Ashqar, Sarmini, Beiruti, Najjar, Teifour, Mansour, Ulabi, Hammoudeh, Sadat, Khuja, Sa’b, Shakhashiro, Nahlawi, Ajanji, Tawfiq Al-Jabban and Taleb Al-Jabban – the latter two being two different families. The residents also confirmed that all these families were original owners and only a few had leased the properties. Regardless, the residents find all this talk about owner verses heir very strange and claim that the State often compensates occupants or squatters so people who inherit property must certainly have a legal claim to compensation.

Khaled – a descendant of original 1960 residents – feels that when the governorate expropriates a house from its original owner then evicts its occupants, it is literally robbing the owner, expropriating the property at a price that would hardly cover the cost of the door of a modern house, let alone one with this type of historical value.

Mr. Ali el-Ali, Director of Planning at the Damascus Directorate of Tourism, cited the Ministry of Tourism’s experience with Ard Kiwan behind the Damascus Sheraton Hotel.  He stated that even though the land was owned by the State, the Ministry still provided the occupants with substitute housing.

Compensation for Expropriation

Hunein Nimr, member of the People’s Council, stated that the government refused to repeal this expropriation because it then would have to repeal 45 similar expropriation decisions.  He adds that:  “It is not permissible to put the interests of the state in opposition to those of individuals, especially the poor among them.”  Whenever one of the poor residents of El-Hamrawi is asked whether he is going home, the response is always to say:  “I intend to go home though when I get there it may just be a pile of rubble!”


This investigative report was done with the support of Arij:  Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism


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