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Assad Regime Auctions Off Land of Displaced Syrians

Assad Regime Auctions Off Land of Displaced Syrians

Wednesday, 30 December, 2020 - 06:30
While Syrians displaced from their homes and farms knew it would be difficult to return, they have still been horrified to learn their land is being auctioned off by the regime. Omar HAJ KADOUR / AFP

Many Syrians forced from their homes by their country's brutal, decade-old war are now shocked to discover that their family farms have been taken over by regime loyalists and cronies.

Rights groups and legal experts say local authorities in parts of northwest Syria recaptured by regime forces have staged auctions to effectively "confiscate" fertile land and punish opponents.

One refugee, 30-year-old Salman, said he always knew it would be difficult to return to the family plot in Idlib province he abandoned during an offensive a year ago by President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

But whatever hopes he still had to return one day were all but crushed when he learnt the rights to cultivate the land had been sold off to a complete stranger.

"What right does someone have to come and take it?" the refugee, who asked to use a pseudonym, told AFP by phone from Greece where he illegally moved a few months ago.

Salman said he used to plant lentils, barley and black cumin on the 37 acres (15 hectares) of land he owns with his brothers, earning up to $12,000 each harvest.

He discovered through a post on social media that the rights to the land were being auctioned off.

"We were shocked," he told AFP. "This land was left to us by our ancestors and we want to pass it down to our children."

Several other Syrians displaced from southern Idlib and adjacent Hama and Aleppo provinces told AFP that they too have had their plots expropriated.

Some learnt about it through social media advertisements run by the regime-affiliated Farmers' Union in Idlib or through acquaintances still living nearby.

In October, the Farmers' Union said that it was auctioning off the right to use and cultivate plots owned by Syrians "who don't reside in government-controlled areas".

Victims found they were being blamed for their misfortune.

The union said the original deed-holders were "indebted" to Syria's Agricultural Cooperative Bank (ACB), which offers loans to farmers -- including those who are now finding it impossible to settle dues from outside regime-controlled territory.

The land owners who spoke to AFP all denied having outstanding payments.

"It's just an excuse," Salman said.

Other auctions are being organized by regime-linked local security committees, without any mention of outstanding debts, said opposition watchdog group The Day After and war monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Grappling with a deep economic crisis compounded by Western sanctions, Damascus is looking to make use of fertile land to boost agricultural production.

Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have condemned the land expropriations in former rebel strongholds.

"The land auctions exploit displacement for economic benefit," said Diana Semaan, Amnesty's Syria researcher.

Authorities, she said, are "seizing lands illegally and in violation of international law".

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