(Image: Human Rights Watch images of Masha’ al-Arb’een, Hama before and after destruction.)
Last week, Human Rights Watch released a report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions,” with satellite imagery documenting the destruction of entire neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama. The images, when juxtaposed against images from a few months before, offer stark evidence of the destruction of at least 145 hectares of neighborhoods. Many of these neighborhoods once contained multi-story apartment buildings—multiplying the scale of the destruction. Scenes of mass demolitions raise some questions. How can these neighborhoods be reconstructed? Can reconstruction efforts link to transitional justice processes? And, perhaps most immediately, where can Syrian refugees and IDPs return to if violence decreases?
SJAC’s recent report on interviews conducted by Charney Research demonstrates that many displaced Syrians have little sense of where they could return to in Syria. IDPs and refugees reported that their villages had been destroyed, and some even wondered if it was possible to return. A 35-year-old IDP in Aleppo asked, “Why should [displaced people] come back? Destroyed houses, no streets, no drainage, no water, and no electricity, why should they come? It is impossible for them to come.” According to UNHCR, the number of Syrian refugees is approaching 2.5 million, and the number of Syrian IDPs is roughly 4.25 million. This illustrates the extreme realities of displacement and its effects, which are far from trivial. Consequently, any discussions of a future Syria must address the needs of people whose homes no longer exist.
Formal talks at Geneva, however, have not touched upon these issues. Although dialogue is just beginning, leaders would be wise to consider the gravity of Syrian displacement as they begin to formulate agreements. Although resettlement may seem like a post-war issue, the reality of mass homelessness–and the resentment of those made homeless–have immediate implications. If refugee and IDP needs are not addressed, the harsh challenges of displacement could provoke further violent conflict, making reconciliation very difficult. Moreover, leaders must think through the potential for reconstruction to aid transitional justice processes.
Reconstruction efforts, if conducted thoughtfully, can contribute to restoring relationships and acknowledging past wrongs as Syria is rebuilt. “Syria: Documentation and its role in Memorialization,” a SJAC memo, focuses on the importance of memorialization, which can be a key component of proceeding with reconstruction in areas that have been subject to unlawful razing. In addition to acknowledging human rights abuses, reconstruction efforts can serve as a platform for people of diverse political backgrounds to come together to rebuild. Restitution processes can also be included in reconstruction efforts. Restitution, unlike compensation, is the process by which property is returned to those from whom it was taken. That said, although restitution can be a useful tool of transitional justice, the actualization of this process is challenging; by advocating for restitution the SJAC does not want to raise hopes and/or imply that it is an easy process to undertake. Regardless, it is important to recognize that,, reconstruction efforts may offer a forum for practically addressing lingering issues from the conflict.
Human Rights Watch concludes “the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.” Neither motive is lawful. The destruction of neighborhoods in Damascus and Hama constitutes a violation of the rules of war. Targeting civilians and demolishing homes are not permitted under international law. Hopefully, increased attention to these incidents will pressure perpetrators to cease and will stimulate discussion concerning reconstruction and transitional justice.