In rebel Syria, a race to save precious property deeds

File photo showing damaged buildings in Jobar as seen from Harasta highway, Damascus, Syria, March 27, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 20 June 2018
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In rebel Syria, a race to save precious property deeds

  • Fearing Syria’s regime would expropriate abandoned properties or tamper with deeds, a network of activists and lawyers try to preserve Syria's official document.
  • Assad regime passes a series of laws that rights defenders fear may unfairly dispossess Syrians from their properties.

BEIRUT: The external hard drive had been smuggled from Syrian regime territory through jihadist-held towns and into Turkey. When Ghazwan Koronful finally got his hands on it, he sighed in relief.
Loaded onto the disk were pictures of thousands of title deeds from towns in central Syria recently recaptured by government troops and largely emptied of their residents.
Fearing Syria’s regime would expropriate abandoned properties or tamper with deeds, a network of activists and lawyers set their covert plan into motion.
“It was our most complex operation yet,” said Koronful, a 65-year-old Syrian lawyer who heads the network from Turkey, where he has lived in exile since 2012.
For nearly five years, Koronful’s Free Syrian Lawyers (FSL) have been working to preserve property deeds and other civil paperwork in Syria’s opposition areas.
They enter town registries, photograph the documents, carefully log and organize them, then smuggle the hard drives across Syria’s sealed northern border into Turkey.
“In total, we’ve got eight terabytes of documents, about 1.7 million documents — court records, wills, birth, marriage, and death certificates,” said Koronful.
Among them are up to 450,000 land-related documents from northern and central Syria — title deeds, contracts, and other papers that displaced Syrians could use to prove property ownership.
These documents are crucial now, Koronful explained, as the government passes a series of laws that rights defenders fear may unfairly dispossess Syrians from their homes.
“Our work simultaneously protects against hostilities that could damage the deeds, and against the regime’s attempts through these new laws to tamper with people’s properties,” he told AFP.
“Those files represent the hope of return.”

FSL sprang into action after Homs city’s registry was destroyed in a fire in 2013, which activists suspected was a regime bid to strip oppositionists of their land.
Smuggling out original deeds from other towns was risky and could be considered tampering, so the FSL’s 15 lawyers opted for the next best thing: digital copies.
With help from civil society group The Day After, they traveled to Turkey to learn how to handle, photograph, and archive documents.
Back in Syria, they began working through abandoned registries in northern rebel towns: Harem, Azaz, Saraqeb.
“We set up a little studio in the room with the most light,” said an FSL lawyer still in Syria who identified himself as Samer.
With just four Canon digital cameras, two laptops, flashes, and tripods, they photographed thousands of deeds, making sure names and dates were clearly visible.
“As soon as we’d finish one 200-page ledger, we’d upload the SD card onto the computer. Meanwhile, the camera didn’t stop. We’d put a new card in and start photographing again,” Samer, 43, told AFP.
Each month, they emptied their computers onto external drives which they sent to Koronful in Turkey.
They raced against air strikes that damaged cameras and wounded staff members, worrying registries would be bombed to pieces before they could finish.
“When we reached the last page, we’d be so happy to be finished. Whatever happens now, if we get bombed, we have a drive with everything on it,” said Samer.
Sometimes they lost the race. In 2013, days before FSL was to begin photographing deeds in the northern town of Al-Bab, Daesh swept in and destroyed the registry, Koronful said.
They now struggle to get permission to enter registries from suspicious rebels, especially in militants-run Idlib, occasionally photographing in secret.

Since Syria’s war erupted in 2011, more than six million people have been internally displaced and another five million have fled the country.
More than 920,000 have been displaced this year alone, the UN said, the fastest rate yet in the seven-year war.
A vast majority leave behind property-related papers, the Norwegian Refugee Council found in polls last year.
That puts them at risk of losing access to their land through decrees like Law 10, which allows for property expropriation for urban development.
Koronful fears the regime could also dispossess refugees through legislation on re-issuing damaged deeds.


Russian-backed air strikes hit Daesh in southern Syria — sources

Updated 38 min 47 sec ago
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Russian-backed air strikes hit Daesh in southern Syria — sources

  • Daesh-affiliated forces entrenched in the Yarmouk Basin
  • The agricultural area has become the main battleground in the sensitive border region

AMMAN: Russian and Syrian jets stepped up their bombing of a Daesh bastion along the Jordan-Israel border in southwestern Syria, as the militants pushed into areas abandoned by other rebel groups, diplomatic and opposition sources said.
Daesh-affiliated forces entrenched in the Yarmouk Basin, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan, also repelled a ground attack by the Syrian army and its allies, the sources added.
The agricultural area has become the main battleground in the sensitive border region after a major Russian-backed Syrian army offensive routed other rebel groups who were once backed by Washington, Jordan and Gulf states.
An intelligence source told Reuters 1,000-1,500 Daesh fighters had been holding their ground despite the 10-day-old bombing campaign that he said had hit villages and caused “untold number” of civilian casualties
A former resident in touch with relatives said thousands of civilians whose villages have been bombed have fled to the safety of areas either held by the army or rebels.
Another source familiar with the situation said Daesh had actually been able to expand its territory over the last 20 hours by seizing at least 18 villages abandoned by other rebels under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Daesh was taking advantage of the collapse of its ideological FSA rivals which it views as apostates, the source said.
The United States once armed the southern FSA rebels, but told them at the start of the Russian-Syrian offensive not to expect its intervention. While cutting other aid to the rebels, Washington had continued to provide those fighting Islamic State with weapons, the source added.
The Syrian army said its aerial strikes and shelling of militants in the Yarmouk Basin — the only territorial pocket held by the hard-line Sunni fundamentalists in the country’s southwest — had killed “tens of terrorists” in a campaign whose goal it said was to crush militants.
The army and its allies have been pushing to expand their foothold near the Golan frontier by negotiating surrender deals with rebel groups and allowing them to move to opposition-held areas in northern Syria.