Abu Mohammed thought he could finally go home after jihadists were expelled from his Damascus suburb, but he says Syrian authorities have blocked his return by wrongly classifying his dwelling as unfit to live in.
In May, regime forces turfed the Islamic State group out of a chunk of the capital’s southern Tadamun neighbourhood with a campaign of air strikes and shelling.
For the first time in six years that meant full government control was restored over the area, bringing with it a calm that sparked hopes of a homecoming.
But instead, Abu Mohammed and others from Tadamun complain, the authorities have deemed many residences unfit, and are blocking their owners from returning ahead of a controversial redevelopment plan.
Five months after IS was forced out, regime barrages impede access to the former jihadist stronghold now under tight security, and journalists are rarely allowed to enter.
At the last checkpoint, rubble blocked the road. The floors of a nearby building lay pancaked one on top of the other, and a hole was blown in the minaret of a mosque.
Abu Mohammed said he managed to see his home before the state inspectors arrived — and insisted it was still fine to live in despite the official ruling.
“There wasn’t even a bullet hole. It had just been pillaged,” he said, giving a pseudonym to avoid reprisals.
“It’s so unfair for citizens who have waited for years (to return) and always stood by the state.”
Another would-be returnee Othman al-Ayssami, 55, was indignant.
“Why can’t I and thousands of other residents go home?” asked the lawyer.
“After the military operations ended, I entered the neighbourhood expecting huge damage,” he said.
But in his four-floor home, “only the windows were broken”, said Ayssami, without specifying if his residence had been deemed unfit.
‘Right to go home’
The neighbourhood of Tadamun has long been in a grey zone.
Once orchards, it has been populated since the late 1960s by people who fled the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights or flooded into Damascus from the countryside, often without official permission to build there.
But today its fate seems particularly uncertain after provincial authorities last month announced it would be affected by a controversial development law.
The law, known as Decree 10, allows the government to seize private property to create zoned developments, compensating owners with shares of the new projects.
If their land is selected, owners inevitably lose their property and must apply to receive shares in exchange.
Construction is not set to start in Tadamun for several years, but officials have already been dispatched to inspect its homes.
A provincial commission has been charged with evaluating damage and rating whether around 25,000 residential units are fit for human habitation.
Even if their homes are declared up to standard, no resident can move back until further notice.
When they realised that a large number of the homes marked as unfit had in fact not been damaged in fighting, members of the community held several meetings with the commission.
To vent their frustration, they set up a Facebook page named “The Tadamun Exiles”.
“It’s our right to go home,” wrote one displaced resident.