These stark images lay bare the devastation wrought by Syrian authorities, razing to the ground the homes of thousands of families.
The satellite pictures and photographs show how the residential buildings, the equivalent of 200 football pitches, have vanished in Damascus and Hama over the past two years, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today.
Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions, which eradicated buildings up to eight stories high.
The human rights organisation say that President Bashar al-Assad's regime ordered the demolitions, illegal under international law.
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It documents seven demolitions on an hitherto unknown scales, using explosives and bulldozers. No military purpose can be discerned, the destruction is nothing but a punishment to civilians, the report said.
“Wiping entire neighbourhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch.
“These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”
The seven cases Human Rights Watch documented took place between July 2012 and July 2013 in the the Masha` al-Arb`een and Wadi al-Jouz neighborhoods in Hama, and the Qaboun, Tadamoun, Barzeh, Mezzeh military airport, and Harran Al-`Awamid neighborhoods in and near Damascus.
Local residents told Human Rights Watch that government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said that they had received no compensation.
One local restaurant owner from the Qaboun neighbourhood of Damascus told the group that security forces arrived one morning unannounced with bulldozers and ordered him to leave the premises: “When I asked why, the soldier said ‘no more questions’ or else I would be detained.”
He said they denied permission to remove anything from the restaurant and forced him to leave on foot, leaving his motorcycle behind. “As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop,” he said. “The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.”
Government officials and pro-government media outlets say the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings.
But commenting on the demolitions in an interview with an international journalist in October 2012, the governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, explicitly stated that the demolitions were essential to drive out opposition fighters.
“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” Solvang said.
“This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN Security Council should, with an ICC referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.”