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Squatters in capital struggle for basic services

The view of Damascus from the squatter neighbourhood of Aysh Warrwa.
(Hugh Macleod/IRIN)

From the top of a mountain, Abu Ali, his two daughters, two sons and wife, have an unbroken view of the Syrian capital, Damascus (see photo slideshow). They left their home on Syria’s Mediterranean coast years ago and came to the city, which still does not recognise them as residents.

Abu Ali and his family live at the highest point of the mountain-flank confusion of concrete and cables that is Aysh Warrwar, a neighbourhood of squatters on the north-eastern edge of Damascus living in houses built without government permission, on land without a land-use blueprint.

Abu Ali has lived in the neighbourhood for six years but it has been difficult for him to access vital services. “We are trapped between two municipalities but when we ask for services they say, ‘We are not responsible for you’,” he said.

“We live in no-man’s land, between Damascus city and Damascus countryside, between Berze municipality and Maraba,” said another man.

Four to five million people live in Damascus and its surrounding areas, including more than half a million Palestinian and Iraqi refugees, making it by far the most populated region in Syria.

According to some estimates, up to 40 percent of all building work in the city is illegal, either built without planning permission as an extension to an existing structure, or on vacant land without having first submitted plans for official approval.

A law adopted in 2003 makes building illegal housing punishable by fines or a jail term.

Demolition of illegal houses is rare

While the official demolition of illegal houses is rare, residents such as Abu Ali are left to struggle to access basic services.

Established in the early 1970s, Aysh Warrwar is still growing and though electricity and water are now provided to the lower part of the neighbourhood, higher up, residents fend for themselves.

Hassan Saqqar Salamah, a local resident, said living in Aysh Warrwar is more difficult than in his home village. “I wish it was like the village here. At least we had water there. The person who comes to Damascus will only return to his village with a heart attack. For us, this is neither a village nor a city,” he said.

At the end of a half-dug trench in upper Aysh Warrwar, an old man watches despondently as a child hops over raw sewage that is oozing from the ground.

“For the past 10 years we’ve been fixing the sewage [system] ourselves,” said Abu Yazan, an Aysh Warrwar resident for the past 15 years. “We collected 10,000 Syrian pounds [US $200] but it was not enough to complete the [current] repairs. This problem has lasted for 40 days.”

No public hospitals within reach

Healthcare in Aysh Warrwar comes at a price. With no public hospitals within easy reach, residents use the Tishreen military hospital, where they are required to pay half their treatment cost, far more than citizens using state healthcare facilities.

When Abu Ali’s wife was giving birth to their fourth child, he had to borrow a friend’s phone to call for transport, as there are no phone lines.

The only vehicle that could make it up that day was a ‘Towner’ delivery van. It overturned on the steep track on the way down, injuring Abu Ali's wife, but not the baby, who was born several hours later.

Poverty prompted Abu Ali to move from Lattakia to Damascus. “It is simple,” he said. “In Damascus I can get a job with a regular income and I can have my own house.”

According to Nabil Ashraf, deputy Local Administration and Environment (LAE) Minister, it is more cost-effective for poor families to build their own homes, rather than rent.

To combat illegal building and help the poor find homes, the government has encouraged the formation of private housing cooperatives, Ashraf told IRIN.

The cooperatives receive low-priced land from the General Establishment for Housing (GEH) on which they are permitted to build new houses legally.

The Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the development agency of the Japanese Government, is working with the local administration, environment ministry and others to draw up a master plan for Damascus that will, for the first time, provide a blueprint for land use across the Syrian capital.

Rather than demolish existing neighbourhoods, the LAE ministry has reached a compromise: residents are free to build as they see fit but the government retains control over land use on 30 percent of a given area.

A recently opened government-built school in Aysh Warrwar, the first in the neighbourhood, and now teaching more than 300 children, is an example of how such a compromise has been reached. Further assistance, such as a compact rubbish truck, has also recently been provided to residents.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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