In Syria, the dream of returning to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk

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When the Syrian authorities allowed the residents of Yarmouk to return home, Palestinian refugee Issa al-Loubani rushed to register his family and begin repairs to his apartment himself, eager to return to this devastated camp. by war.

Equipped with their precious property titles, hundreds of people have already registered to be able to return to this camp which, before the start of the war in 2011, hosted around 160,000 Palestinian refugees as well as Syrian families.

“Our house needs major renovations, but it’s better than paying rent,” says Mr. Loubani, who regularly visited his home from nearby Damascus with his wife Ilham and their daughter.

The family has already installed a rug, kitchen utensils and a mattress. But the 48-year-old Palestinian knows he will have to spend the winter in an apartment with gaping windows covered with plastic sheeting.

In Syria, the dream of returning to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk

This neighborhood in the suburbs of Damascus was torn away in 2018 by government forces from the jihadists of the Islamic State group, but reconstruction is stalling.

“We still need to restore electricity and running water, clear the rubble from the streets,” he admits.

The ground of his deserted street is strewn with rubble: a damaged washing machine, blocks of stone, planks, old rags, scattered clothes.

And just in front of their building, Issa and Ilham find among other things to them a photo of their wedding. “Here is Oum Walid”, exclaims the mother of the family, indicating a guest.

Partially or totally collapsed buildings line up along several alleys, reminiscent of years of fierce fighting.

Returns by the hundreds

The municipality of Damascus announced in November that residents could return to Yarmouk, provided their homes were not unsanitary.

Installed on the ground floor of a ruined building, officials welcome dozens of people every day who want to obtain the necessary authorizations.

In Syria, the dream of returning to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk

Some 600 families have already registered, assures AFP Mahmoud al-Khaled, head of the committee responsible for clearing the camp.

About 40% of the buildings could be reoccupied almost immediately while 40% require rehabilitation, he says.

Established in the 1950s, Yarmouk was initially a refugee camp established for Palestinians driven from their lands after Israel’s creation in 1948.

Over the decades it became a real residential and commercial district, it fell under the control of the rebels in 2012, falling three years later into the hands of the jihadists.

Syria at war has experienced a sharp deterioration in the socioeconomic situation over the past year, marked by a plunge in the national currency and runaway inflation.

The UN reported at the beginning of November the return in recent months to Yarmouk of 430 families who “no longer have the means to rent”.

The overwhelming majority of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) infrastructure in the camp, including sixteen schools, needs to be completely rebuilt. The three medical centers were also destroyed.

A mobile clinic comes once a week, according to UNRWA. The organization’s buses transport the children to schools in Damascus.

Clears up

Despite these conditions, Chehab al-Din Blidi has relocated to Yarmouk for a month, his accommodation having been largely spared by the fighting.

In his brightly painted living room with padded armchairs, you could almost forget the destruction outside.

“If we had waited for the return of electricity, water, mains drainage, we would have stayed maybe a year to pay rent” elsewhere, explains the Syrian sixty-year-old.

To obtain a few hours of electricity, he connected to the grid outside the camp with a long electric cable.

“The destruction is too important to be supported by a single institution,” he admits. “Reconstruction requires the efforts of several countries. In the meantime, we have to manage ”.

In Syria, the dream of returning to the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk

In a country fragmented by war, where divisions remain deep, the return is sometimes an unattainable dream.

This is the case for Ahmed Khormandi, who left Yarmouk in 2015. After years of exile, the forty-something has ended up in rebel territory, in a camp for displaced people.

“No one here can register to return,” he told AFP, saying he feared arrests.

“Even if I came home, I wouldn’t be able to afford to fix it,” he adds, saying he heard that his house had been looted and burnt down.

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