Activists said the Syrian army spearheaded the demolition of Wadi al-Jouz’s slums, shelling homes indiscriminately, before sending in bulldozers to raze structures as people fled. More than one-quarter of all Syrians have been displaced by violence over the past two years.
Opposition activists view the demolition as a form of collective punishment, aimed to crush the revolting neighborhoods in Hama, a city that defied the Baath Party for 50 years.
Hama, which held the largest peaceful protests against the Assad regime in July 2011, has a history of rebellion. In 1982, the city was the final stand for the Muslim Brotherhood’s armed revolt against President Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father. An estimated 40,000 people were killed after Hafez’s regime relentlessly shelled the city and then bulldozed one-quarter of Hama.
The city has been under strict government control since the Syrian military entered in August 2011 to end the burgeoning peaceful protests. Armed rebel groups inside Hama remained small, and most of the fighters from the city participated in battles in the suburbs and other provinces.
Clashes between rebels and the Syrian military flared up in April, and fighters attacked and captured the city’s Naseh Alwani school checkpoint. But rebels in Hama – seen as a regime stronghold due to its proximity to the Alawite heartland west of the Orontes River – weren’t able to maintain momentum, and retreated a few days later.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that the destruction of Wadi al-Jouz was part of a routine operation to remove construction violations, part of Hama City Council’s plan to regulate building in the city. Mashaa’ al-Arb’een, another Hama slum, was flattened for the same reason last September.
Hama Governor Anas al-Na’em said in October that Mashaa’ al-Arb’een was demolished with the goal of developing real estate in the area, and “improving the social status of its residents.”
Abu Yousef, an anti-regime activist from Hama, questioned how the government is improving the lives of the slum dwellers by making them homeless. “I would tell [the government] that a year before beginning demolition, you ought to establish housing associations for the property owners whose houses you want to destroy, and then go ahead with the demolition,” he said.
Hama isn’t the only city to experience the regime’s seemingly newfound zeal for enforcing building codes.
President Bashar al-Assad issued a decree last year ordering the demolition of slums in Damascus and its suburbs. Although the move was also marketed as an urban planning project, The Wall Street Journal reported in November that the mostly Sunni neighborhoods were destroyed to drive out who businessman Hussein Makhlouf, governor of the province surrounding Damascus and an Assad relative, dubbed “terrorists.”
Abu Yousef said residents of Mashaa’ al-Arb’een, which was largely destroyed in September, were subjected to shelling and then were warned to clear the area, so they were able to gather some of their belongings. In Wadi al-Jouz, the implementation was sudden, so many families couldn’t save their valuables.
Undertaking these massive urban planning endeavors at a time of war has amplified the suffering of civilians who were already broke. The residents of Wadi al-Jouz were among the city’s poorest, but they had roofs over their heads. Now, Abu Yousef said, they have nothing. With nowhere to run, he added, residents of neighboring slums are terrified that they too will soon lose their homes.
SANA reported on May 12 that the Relief Sub-Committee of the Hama Governorate called for a rush to provide temporary accommodations for Wadi al-Jouz’s internally displaced residents, and the Red Crescent, an aid organization operating in the country, has distributed some aid. But most of the displaced are relying on already tapped relatives and friends, and some have taken refuge in schools.