January 30, 2014

III.Demolitions in Qaboun neighborhood, Damascus

Dates of demolitions: July 21-October, 2012; June-July, 2013 (approximate)[20]

Estimated area demolished: 18 hectares

July 16, 2012

August 4, 2012

Satellite imagery reviewed by Human Rights Watch show that buildings covering an area measuring 18 hectares were demolished in the Qaboun neighborhood in northern Damascus in two waves. The satellite photographs indicate that the first wave of demolitions took place between July 16 and October 3, 2012, the second between July 1 and November 20, 2013.[21]

The first wave appears to have been directly related to intensive clashes between government and opposition forces in mid-July, 2012. On July 15, clashes, described as the “fiercest fighting yet” in the capital, were reported in the southern districts of Tadamoun, Midan, and Kafr Souseh, and shortly thereafter in the northern districts of Barzeh and Qaboun.[22]

Government forces gradually forced the opposition to retreat. Walid, a local resident and activist, told Human Rights Watch that government forces launched a major offensive against the district, using helicopters, artillery, and tank fire around July 16, 2012. After several days of fighting, government forces accompanied by shabeeha, pro-government militias, entered the district, according to him, and started to loot houses and shops. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on July 19, 2012 that the Syrian army had stormed the Qaboun district with “a large number of tanks.”[23] By July 23, government officials and opposition activists said that government forces had largely regained control in Damascus.[24]

After opposition forces retreated from Qaboun, government forces started demolishing houses and shops in the neighborhood. Human Rights Watch interviewed two local residents who witnessed the demolitions. One local restaurant owner told Human Rights Watch:

Around 9:30 a.m. one morning, Syrian security forces arrived in our neighborhood and asked us to leave the premises immediately. I saw three bulldozers with them. They did not give us any prior warning. They just showed up unannounced. When I asked why, the soldier said ‘no more questions’ or else I would be detained. I asked him if I could remove the things in the restaurant, but he said no. I had a motorcycle but they didn’t allow me to take it and forced me to leave on foot. As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop. The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.[25]

Walid told Human Rights Watch that the army started demolishing buildings on July 21, 2012 and that the operation lasted for about 50 days. He told Human Rights Watch:

The army demolished 1,250 shops and 650 homes. Eighteen-hundred families had to evacuate. There were two or three families in every house. The Syrian army gave the shop owners 24 hours to empty their shops. Homeowners were given only three hours to pack their stuff and leave. It was not enough time. People barely took anything with them.[26]

Several videos posted on YouTube show demolitions in Qaboun in progress or the aftermath. In one video posted in July, an excavator demolishes houses while being guarded by what appears to be a single main battle tank.[27] Several similar videos posted in September show that the demolition operation continued at that time.[28]

Walid told Human Rights Watch that the areas demolished were the ones where the heaviest fighting took place. He told Human Rights Watch:

The frontline [between the government and opposition forces] extended from the B`ali and `Ardyet neighborhoods, reaching the industrial area. Now both neighborhoods are completely destroyed and exposed enough for the government forces to spot any opposition attack.[29]

Human Rights Watch has not been able to find any government statement or decree explaining the reason for the demolitions in Qaboun. Human Rights Watch was also not able to identify any witnesses to the second wave of demolitions, which took place at some point between July 1 and November 20, 2013, according to satellite imagery.

[20] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 5, 2012.

[21]Satellite imagery dates analyzed by Human Rights Watch: July 16, August 4 and 28, September 8 and 22, October 3, 2012, February 4, July 1, and November 20, 2013; Sources: EUSI, USG and Astrium; Copyright: DigitalGlobe 2014 and CNES 2014.

[22] Erika Solomon, “Fiercest fighting yet reported inside Damascus,” Reuters, July 15, 2012, http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/07/15/uk-syria-crisis-idUKBRE8640R320120715 (accessed August 10, 2013).

[23] “Tanks roll on Damascus as violence reigns,” Al-Jazeera English, July 19, 2012, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/07/201271961645358140.html (accessed January 9, 2014).

[24] “Syrian Army Retakes Most of Damascus,” Naharnet, July 23, 2012, http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/47542-syrian-army-retakes-most-of-damascus (accessed January 9, 2014); Bassem Mroue and Zeina Karam, “Syria conflict: Damascus Suffers Destruction, Hunger As Fighting hits Country’s Heart,” Huffington Post, July 23, 2012, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/23/syria-conflict-damascus_n_1695623.html (accessed January 9, 2014).

[25] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 24, 2013.

[26] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 5, 2012.

[27]هدم المنازل والمحلات بالدبابات في القابون 28-7-2012,” (“The demolition of houses and shops with tanks in Qaboun 28-7-2012”), July 28, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/b-8EHnmE7_4 (accessed August 12, 2013); Human Rights Watch identified the exact location by creating a photomosaic of the video and comparing this with satellite imagery.

[28]هاااااام دبابة تهدم المحلات في حي القابون 23-9-2012,” (“Important tank destroyed shops in the Qaboun neighborhood 23/09/2012”),September 23, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/e3j9Lh9Fm08 (accessed August 13, 2013); “دمشق حي القابون :: الدمار في المنطقة الصناعية,” (“Damascus Qaboun neighborhood: destruction in the industrial area”), September 12, 2013, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/puKtqPdumv8 (accessed August 13, 2013); “تهديم وتهبيط المنازل في القابون 29-9-2012,” (“Demolition and destruction of homes in Qaboun 29/09/2012”), September 29, 2013, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/peyoOgWkMLw (accessed August 13, 2013); “هاام دبابات الاسد تقوم بتدمير حي القابون 27-9-2012,” (“Important Assad tanks destroys Qaboun neighborhood 27/09/2012”), September 27, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/MkYM4Nm2wE0 (accessed August 13, 2013); “قابون - هدم المنازل بالدبابات - 29-9-2012, “ (“The demolition of houses with tanks - 29/09/2012”), September 29, 2012, video clip, YouTube, http://youtu.be/5GBjOn3nenI (accessed August 13, 2013).

[29] Human Rights Watch phone interview, November 5, 2012.