Khalid al-Abeed, 65, and his family left their home in the Old City of Homs when peaceful demonstrations took a violent turn in 2012. They relocated to Damascus, where al-Abeed says he lived a life as a “lowly stranger,” even though he was still in his own country.
The war raged on, with some of the fiercest fighting taking place inside Homs city. Last month, opposition negotiators surrendered the provincial capital’s rebel-held district of Waer, and the battles finally ended.
From Damascus, al-Abeed watched as the Assad regime reasserted total control over Homs city. People started returning to their long-abandoned homes.
On March 20, almost five years after leaving Homs, al-Abeed returned, with land deeds and identification in hand.
When he reached the steps of his house, al-Abeed found a woman standing in the doorway. The house, she said, is hers.
The Old Market of Homs city, December 2013. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Homsi.
“I said that I’ve got papers proving that this is my home,” al-Abeed tells Syria Direct’s Alaa Ratoub. “The woman just looked at me and said: ‘Oh, go shove it. This home was given to my husband by the security forces. He’s out there defending our country from the rebels, and it’s our right to stay in this house.’”
Q: When did you first find out that you could return to Homs?
A number of our relatives have gone back to the city since the beginning of the year. They told us that the regime began allowing people to return and rebuild their homes provided that it’s still abandoned. Most of the people who went back did so with all of their children after going through an intense security check, a measure to ensure the safety of regime supporters living in Homs. All of this encouraged us, and we returned to our home on March 20.
Q: You had been living in Damascus for four years. You had a life there. Why did you choose to go back to Homs city?
There were a number of reasons. For one, I’m an old man, and I could no longer guarantee that we could pay rent. Prices were very high, and I just wasn’t able to meet my family’s needs. Our life in Damascus was difficult, and we were never able to adapt to the environment fully. We felt like we were strangers even though we were living in our own country.
Q: Tell us about that return trip to Homs city, to your home.
I felt that this financial and psychological situation in which I was living was never going to end, and so I started to discuss with my neighbors in Damascus originally from Bab al-Darib whether or not we should return. Some of them were hesitant; others were afraid. But we said that we’re all old, and it’s not as if we had any warrants or charges out against us. If we had, the regime would have arrested us in Damascus. With that in mind, the men—four of us in total, all from Bab al-Darib and all between 55 and 65 years old—decided to go and check out the situation. So we put it in God’s hands, and we left.
The security official at the Bab a-Darib checkpoint demanded to see my family ledger [Ed.: In Syria and much of the Middle East, births, deaths, marriages, divorces and all issues pertaining to a family are catalogued and compiled in family ledgers; small booklets resembling passports]. He started asking questions about all the young men whose names were written on it, men between the ages of 18 and 40. He asked us where they are now and if they’re with the rebels or if they’ve left the country and so on.
After a long debate, they let us enter Bab a-Darib. I was shocked when I saw strangers walking around in our neighborhood. When I got to my house, there were children playing in front of it. I went to open the door to my home, and I heard a child say to me: ‘Who are you? What do you want? This is our home.’ I told him: ‘This is my home. Who are all of you?’
Syrian women walk in between destroyed buildings in government-held Homs city, September 2016. Photo courtesy of Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images.
I was utterly stunned when a woman opened the door to my home. I asked her what she was doing in my house. She said that it’s been her home for three years. She said it was destroyed and that they rebuilt it and have been living in it since.
I asked her who allowed her to live in my home. I said that I’ve got papers proving that this is my home, under my name, and that they have no right staying in it.
The woman just looked at me and said: ‘Oh, go shove it. This home was given to my husband by the security forces. He’s out there defending our country from the rebels, and it’s our right to stay in this house.’
When my neighbors and I all met back up at the checkpoint, it turned out that they had the same exact experience at their respective homes.
The guards at the checkpoint told us: ‘So now you remember that you’ve homes in Homs? You can return, but there’ll be conditions.’
Q: What were the conditions?
I had to hand over my sons to the regime, for them to serve in the military, in order to get my house. I also needed to provide identification and documents proving that we own the house.
When I produced the required documents, the checkpoint guard sent me away, saying: ‘Go on, you have no business here until you bring your sons to serve the nation.’
I immediately went to the governor’s office and submitted a complaint. They took my phone number and told me that they would call me if anything new happened.
I returned to Damascus straight away after that. There has been no word from them so far, and I don’t expect any.
Q: Where are your sons? What are they doing?
My son Ramiz is 25 years old. He graduated from university with a specialty in Arabic literature, then left Syria more than three years ago. He travelled to Germany via the smuggling route over the sea from Turkey.
My other son, Rami, is 22 years old. He studied English literature up to his second year, but joined the Free Syrian Army more than two years ago. Now, he is in Idlib, and doesn’t want to come back even though we have tried to convince him that the revolution failed. Rami won’t hear us.
I also have two daughters: 17-year-old Leen and 15-year-old Sara. They are both with me in Damascus, along with my wife. My wife is sick—she suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, and has had a slipped disc in her back for more than two years.
Q: What options do you have, after being unable to get your house back?
Options?! I can only leave it up to God.
All I can do now is stay in Damascus, a lowly stranger. My family and I can’t do anything. The conditions to get my house in Homs back are impossible for me to meet.
Q: How did your family feel when you told them what happened?
Their tears said it all. They were so ready to go back home.
I really felt defeated. I should have died before leaving my home. I have lost everything: my sons and my honor. I saw my house, and I couldn’t go inside.
I always pray for God to give me patience, to give patience to the many Syrian people who are suffering the same story. I am not the only one.