January 30, 2014

I. Demolition of Masha` al-Arb`een neighborhood, Hama

Date of demolition: September 27-October 13, 2012

Estimated area of destruction: 40 hectares

September 28, 2012

October 13, 2012

According to satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch, virtually all buildings in the Masha` al-Arb`een neighborhood on the northern edge of Hama city were completely destroyed between September 27 and October 13, 2012.

Located adjacent to the Hama-Aleppo highway, the Masha` al-Arb`een neighborhood largely consisted of poorly constructed houses that were built illegally before the Syrian conflict broke out, according to local residents. News articles about the demolition of the neighborhood cited government officials, including the governor of Hama, saying that the authorities were removing illegally built structures to develop the area and improve the living conditions of its inhabitants.[2]

But the context and circumstances of the demolition of the neighborhood indicate that it was mainly driven by ongoing military operations against opposition fighters in the area.

Government forces had clashed with opposition fighters in the neighborhood at various times in the months leading up to the demolition, according to six local residents interviewed by Human Rights Watch. One resident said: “Army soldiers used to break in to our homes searching for opposition fighters. If they suspected that opposition fighters were in the house they would kill or arrest the owner.”[3] Two other witnesses also claimed that government forces had committed extrajudicial executions.[4]

Residents told Human Rights Watch that because government forces controlled the main entrances to Hama, opposition fighters often used the narrow roads in the densely populated al-Arb`een neighborhood to move in and out of the city. Residents also said that some people from the neighborhood had joined the FSA, but that they stayed in only a couple of houses in the neighborhood.

In September 2012, shortly after the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, government forces launched a major offensive against the neighborhood, shelling the area with artillery and mortars before entering, according to those interviewed by Human Rights Watch. After several days of fighting, opposition fighters retreated from the neighborhood, the witnesses said.[5] News articles cited unnamed government sources claiming that government forces had killed several opposition fighters and seized weapons depots in the neighborhood.[6]

Shortly after opposition fighters retreated, bulldozers directed by government military forces started demolishing the neighborhood, destroying thousands of buildings, according to residents. Umm Oday, who had left the neighborhood a month before the demolition out of fear for her safety, told Human Rights Watch that her neighbor called her one day to tell her that her house was about to be demolished. When she went to her house she saw that the Syrian army had blocked the entrance to her street with tanks and other vehicles. She said:

I yelled, screamed and cried for them to let me pass to see what is going on with my house. When they allowed me and other women to pass, the bulldozer was already demolishing houses while their owners stood outside watching. I begged the soldier to let me in to collect my belongings. He let me, but I had only a few minutes. After I left, the bulldozer demolished my house. Nothing was left of it, not even the walls.[7]

A second owner whose house was also demolished told Human Rights Watch:

We saw bulldozers approaching our neighborhood, but we stayed in our house because we never thought that they would destroy all the houses. After two days, our turn came. We left our things. We were afraid to stay one second longer because our house was shaking while bulldozers destroyed the houses close by. When the bulldozers approached our house, my husband went outside to talk with the army soldiers. My husband was begging them to spare our house but they shouted: ‘We want to destroy, we want to destroy.’ They didn’t explain to us what was happening.[8]

A man who witnessed the destruction from his house across the street from the neighborhood told Human Rights Watch:

It was a disaster and a tragedy. There are no houses left in the neighborhood except one house that was used as a mosque. But of course nobody goes there now because everybody has left.[9]

The two owners of the demolished houses interviewed by Human Rights said that they received no official explanation, warning, or compensation.

The first sign of demolition is visible in satellite imagery taken in the morning of September 28, 2012.[10] While the September 28 imagery shows the presence of over seventy heavy construction and utility vehicles in the neighborhood, only four armored vehicles are visible, supporting witnesses’ claims that the fighting was already over and the neighborhood was under government control by the time of the demolition.[11] Satellite imagery from October 13 showed that by that date virtually all buildings in the neighborhood, a building surface area of over 40 hectares, had been demolished.[12]

[2]إزالة مخالفات مشاع الأربعين ليس لتشريد الأهالي ,”(The removal of violations in Mosha’ al-Arb’eenis not fordisplacing residents), Damas Post, October 9, 2012, http://www.damaspost.com/%D9%85%D8%AD%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA/%D8%A5%D8%B2%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%AE%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%A7%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B1%D8%A8%D8%B9%D9%8A%D9%86-%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%B3-%D9%84%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AF-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D9%87%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%8A.htm (accessed January 9, 2014);

تطهير مناطق في الحجر الأسود بريف دمشق وعمليات نوعية في حلب ,”

(Clearing areasin Hajjar al-Aswadin Damascus Suburbs and uniqueoperationsin Aleppo)

Damas Post, September 20, 2012, http://www.damaspost.com/%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D8%A9/%D8%AA%D8%B7%D9%87%D9%8A%D8%B1-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%82-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%AD%D8%AC%D8%B1-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A3%D8%B3%D9%88%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81-%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%82-%D9%88%D8%B9%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%AA-%D9%86%D9%88%D8%B9%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AD%D9%84%D8%A8.htm (accessed January 9, 2014).

[3] Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 30, 2013.

[4] Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 28, 2013; Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 11, 2012.

[5] Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 30, 2013.

[6] See for example, قواتنا المسلحةتقضي على عدد كبير من الإرهابيين في حلب وتكبدهم خسائر فادحة وتطهر حي جوبر بدمشق,” (“Our armed forceseliminateda large number ofterroristsin Aleppoand inflicted heavy losses on them andcleansed Jobarneighborhood [from terrorists]inDamascus”)

SANA state news agency, September 27, 2012, http://sana.sy/ara/336/2012/09/27/443895.htm (accessed january 9, 2014); “وإصابة العشرات من الإرهابيين بعضهم من جنسيات عربية وأجنبية بأحياء بحلب وآخرون يستسلمون..ضبط سيارة محملة بأسلحة متنوعة في كراج الصناعة,” (“And wounding dozensofterrorists, some of them Arab and foreignnationalities in Alepponeighborhoodsandotherssurrender..Seizinga car in industry garage loaded withvariety ofweapons”), Syria Now, http://www.syrianow.sy/index.php?p=7&id=59339 (accessed January 9, 2014).

[7] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 14, 2012.

[8] Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 30, 2013.

[9] Human Rights Watch phone interview, January 28, 2013.

[10]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: September 22, October 3 and 13, 2012; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid