At the beginning of the year, in besieged suburbs of Damascus city and rural villages in the province, local opposition officials signed temporary cease-fire agreements with the Syrian government. Rebel fighters put down their weapons and, slowly, civilians were allowed to return to the long-embattled neighborhoods.
Barzeh, a northwest suburb of the Syrian capital, was one of the first communities to recognize a cease-fire with Assad forces, following more than a year of violence.
The area had been a site of near-daily fighting since March 2013, and many residents who fled say that they couldn’t wait to return home.
But once they did, many found their homes reduced to rubble – though they had left, the fighting had continued – along with failing local job markets and economies. Many are still unable to afford the sky-high cost of rebuilding their damaged homes.
When it was announced in early January that civilians were allowed to return, ousted residents rushed back to the city. They found entire streets leveled. According to estimates by United Nations officials who visited Barzeh, it was one of the hardest hit in the Damascus area; the level of destruction to homes and commercial spaces here hit 75 to 85 percent in peripheral areas, and 100 percent along the front lines.
Abd al-Rahman al-Shami, a member of a local civilian council that has tasked itself with surveying the damage, says that four months after the signing of the cease-fire, nearly 300 families have returned – just one-third of Barzeh’s original 35,000 residents. He says the majority have not returned primarily because they cannot afford the cost of repairing their homes.
In short supply, construction supply prices in the suburbs have skyrocketed by about 400 percent over the past two years. The price of a 50 kilogram bag of cement in Barzeh now runs to 1,000 Syrian pounds, or $8. One cubic meter of sand has reached 4,000 pounds and the average price of window glass is approximately 1,300 pounds. The majority of the returnees are unemployed, and can’t afford to buy much outside food and other basic supplies.
The cost of restoration varies depending on the level of damage. While the cost of restoration for a partially damaged house might run 75,000 pounds, or $500, for broken windows, doors and ceiling repairs, it can reach as much as 400,000, or $2,600, to rebuild a home that has been demolished.
If they want to return to their old homes, most residents must cover the costs out of their own pockets. Abu Haitham, who is married with three children, says he had to borrow money from friends to restore his home. Since his return, he has redone two out of four rooms, using clear plastic sheets instead of glass as a cost cutting measure.
He says he “believes that glass will be the first victim of any shell that might fall on the neighborhood in the future.” He adds that most of his neighbors, who have also chosen to return, borrowed money from relatives or were forced to sell their gold and other pricey items.
One man, Abu Amer, used metal boards to cover the holes left in the walls by shelling. He will go on living in his battered house no matter how it looks to the outside world, he says – he refuses to be homeless again.
There have been minor attempts to alleviate the burden; a local NGO funded by Syrian and international donors provided residents with some free construction supplies, but as donor funds dried up or were diverted to more “pressing” issues like food and medical aid, the service was discontinued.
Despite the economic pressure on civilians, Barzeh’s cease-fire agreement is widely considered more successful than similar agreements in neighboring areas, and the town has enjoyed a modicum of stability. But despite its slow rebuild, the landscape here is haunted by scenes of fierce fighting. Entire neighborhoods, including the once-bustling Dahr al-Mistah and al-Ghammeh, remain ghost towns.