Slum-Dwellers Challenge Official Account of Riots

They say police crackdown on Ruhaiba left two people dead – official report mentions no fatalities.

Slum-Dwellers Challenge Official Account of Riots

They say police crackdown on Ruhaiba left two people dead – official report mentions no fatalities.

Friday, 12 June, 2009

They came suddenly, without any prior notice at all, and started to destroy houses,” said one resident of the poor neighbourhood of Ruhaiba on the outskirts of Damascus.

The man – who preferred not to be named – said he felt both grief and anger as municipal bulldozers last week destroyed a patch of unlicensed buildings, including his own house.

He was describing the moments which culminated in the bloody events of June 2, when riots erupted in the neighbourhood, which, according to around 20 local residents interviewed by IWPR, resulted in the death of two people and injuries to several others.

Over the past ten years, as poverty levels have risen, increasing numbers of unlicensed buildings have been erected around Damascus and other large Syrian cities.

Observers say that authorities generally turn a blind eye to the construction of illegal dwellings in poor areas.

From time to time, however, officials decide to demolish such properties and subsequently clash with local residents, said lawyer and human rights activist Muhanad al-Hasani.

According to eyewitnesses to the Ruhaiba incident, municipality officials and police arrived at the impoverished neighbourhood, some 50 kilometres northeast of the capital, on the morning of June 2. They had come to implement an order to destroy four blocks of unlicensed buildings, said locals.

Eyewitness reports say the situation turned violent when residents present at the scene saw a women being insulted and dragged in her nightdress by policemen.

The woman and her children had refused to leave their home, even as a bulldozer started to pound at its walls, said the witnesses.

Subsequently, residents began to hurl stones at security forces who retaliated with tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition, they added.

One man who was present at the scene of the clashes said that he saw a boy – later identified as Muhammad Abdul-Karim al-Toti – being shot.

“I watched the boy fall on the ground next to me,” he said. “I tried to talk to him, but he was hit by a bullet in his head.” When people realised that Toti had been killed, they exploded with anger, said the witness.

“There was no justification to use live fire against young people who carried nothing but stones,” he said.

“If they wanted to scare people, they could have fired in the sky and not in [the direction of] people.”

According to witnesses, furious dwellers then turned to the municipality building and set it on fire, before torching the car of local mayor Ahmad al-Sayed Ahmad.

The witnesses added that hundreds of anti-riot policemen then arrived on the scene.

According to residents, one man is still in hospital in a critical condition after being shot in the kidney.

Another man, Khaled Saad-Aldin, is said to have been killed after a security forces bus ran him over when its driver lost control of its brakes, they added.

Eyewitnesses say that riots continued until the evening, when security forces were able to gain control of the situation. Several people were arrested and some are still detained, said residents.

The state-run news agency SANA reported that a number of policemen and residents were injured during the incident, with two civilians in a critical condition in hospital. It mentioned no fatalities.

According to the SANA report, police forces were attacked by rioters as they oversaw the destruction of the illegal buildings.

The official report also said that rioters set police vehicles on fire and opened fire, prompting officials to take measures to control the situation.

SANA reported that the mayor was dismissed from his position the next morning, and parliament appointed a committee to investigate the events. It also said that some members of parliament visited the area where they promised locals that the demolition of unlicensed buildings would be stopped.

Observers said that the violence had erupted partly as a result of an absence of urban planning.

A decree issued last year – published in the official gazette – stipulated that all unlicensed buildings should be demolished.

However, observers said that the government has not presented alternatives yet to slum-dwellers – most of whom can’t afford to move to legal housing.

Some of those whose homes were demolished complained that they had poured all their savings into their houses. Many said they couldn’t understand why the city council had suddenly decided to carry out the demolition.

According to Hasani, decisions to remove illegal houses do not take into consideration what will happen to the people who live in them.

In an interview with IWPR last month, spokesman for Syrian embassy in London Jihad Makdissi said the government had a plan to rehabilitate the slums around Damascus, yet gave no further details of this.

However, he added that no one would be made homeless.

“No person in Syria is thrown out of his home or will [be thrown out,] without [the authorities] finding him another home [first],” he said.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published in SYR Issue 100, 14 Apr 10.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

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