Imad, a 41-year-old Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, has filed for resettlement three times over the last six years, asking forces in control of the western Syria city of Al Qusayr whether he can return home.
Even though he informed his relatives, who maintain close ties with regime troops in the city, that his house did not sustain demolition-level damage, and that he was willing to personally renovate and move back there, Imad received no conclusive permission for return.
His hometown of Al Qusayr continues to be overrun not only by Syrian regime forces, but also by Iran-backed Hezbollah militias, who took over the city in 2013.
For the time being, however, returning to his property seems “impossible.”
“The regime did not draw up a plan for bringing refugees back, nor did Hezbollah withdraw from the region,” Imad told a 7Dnews correspondent, adding that many locals report that “Qusayr has been transformed into a military zone controlled by paramilitaries.”
Hezbollah’s unchecked control of the city has kept away those inhabitants willing to return.
“Agreements between the Syrian regime and Lebanese authorities for facilitating the voluntary return of the displaced do not include the residents of the city of Qusayr,” Imad observed.
It is worth noting that Al Qusayr was the first battlefield won over by the Syrian regime against opposition forces in the western Homs governorate and its countryside. Some six years after the regime retook control of the city, it seems as though a deliberate policy decision is not allowing the return of displaced locals, most of whom are scattered in Lebanon and other areas in northern Syria.
In a military campaign waged with the help of the Lebanese Hezbollah militants on May 19th, 2013, the regime in Damascus was able to clear any opposition from Qusayr and use the city as a segue to other towns along the border with Lebanon.
Interestingly, before battles erupted into fully-fledged violence, residents were evacuated by the thousands under the impression that once fighting was over, they would return. Many fled to neighbouring Lebanese territory, namely Arsal, where a refugee camp was set up solely to accommodate Al Qusayr residents.
The Arsal camp was dubbed “the orphanage camp,” named after the large number of orphaned Syrian children, whose fathers were killed in combat against Hezbollah militants.
After the regime restored control over Al Qusayr, none of these refugees was allowed to return. Until today, the city remains in ruins with no sign for reconstruction efforts taking place any time soon.
Realizing the status quo, activists have raised several questions about plans for the future of this bereft city.
Contrary to Al Qusayr, Syrian cities, villages and towns known for giving popular support to the Assad regime have seen reconstruction efforts and eased the return of displaced locals.
“Al Qusayr and its surroundings have become a closed military zone run by Hezbollah,” Abu Al Huda Al Homsi, a twice-displaced Syrian opposition activist, told 7Dnews.
A Hezbollah military parade was held in Al Qusayr, back in November 2016. Hundreds of combatants partook in the show of force which was elevated as an event for the militia to include top-brass officials, such as the notorious senior Hezbollah cleric, Hashim Safi Al Din.
“Hezbollah fighters are based in Al Qusayr area and it is now considered a military base co-run by both the group and the Syrian regime, that is why displaced persons are not allowed to return,” Homsi explained.
Many who wish to voluntarily return from Lebanon to Al Qusayr have been excluded from regime approvals provided elsewhere.
“Plans for impacting demographic change, devised by Iranians and the Syrian regime, have prevented Al Qusayr locals, who were mostly supporters of the opposition, from being allowed to return to their homes,” the activist said.
Apart from locals demanding the right to return to their homes in Al Qusayr, Lebanese officials, namely former Minister of State for Refugee Affairs Mouin Merehbi, have urged Hezbollah militiamen to leave the city alone in order to secure the refugees’ return. But calls by Lebanese statesmen and military officials to persuade the Iran-backed militia out of Al Qusayr have been met with indifference.
Syrian opposition activists note that those who dared to return were only able to go back to agricultural farmland far away from the city’s centre.
With uncertainty looming over their future for six years now, the displaced inhabitants of Al Qusayr form the bulk of those Syrians who left Lebanon seeking refuge in Syria’s northern Idlib governorate back in 2017.