“Even the dead have become items for trade,” Abu Ghiath says in dismay. He is a resident of Ein Tarma, a town in Eastern Ghouta, where many residents regularly face exploitation and extortion by the municipality and associated figures. Their criminal practices have now expanded to selling graves, taking advantage of the residents’ need to secure burial plots for their dead.

Ein Tarma used to have one cemetery located behind the municipality building, but with a shortage of burial space – especially after the increase in deaths due to the military campaign by the regime in Eastern Ghouta in 2018 – the municipal council of Ain Tarma established another cemetery in the Ein Tarma valley in 2019.

The Leader of the “Grave Gang”

The regime’s Directorate of Endowments in the Damascus Countryside entrusted the new cemetery to the Ein Tarma municipality for the management and sale of graves. However, a former mayor of Ein Tarma, Musallam Mohammad Salam, illegitimately claimed ownership of property No. 1803, the site of the new cemetery. Salam expanded the property and enclosed it, then started selling burial plots for personal profit, in coordination with the municipality – which shared in the proceeds.

Musallam Salam sells graves to town residents under forged contracts, exploiting his close ties with the Ein Tarma municipality. After Salam was removed from his mayoral position, he assumed the role of director at a charity called Al-Birr Association for Charity and Social Services, with the support of several individuals who included the former mayor of Ein Tarma, Mohammad Maher Bayazid, his deputy, Youssef al-Qadi, and Salam’s uncle, Mohammad Khair Khaled, the director of the Farmers’ Association in Ein Tarma. Not only did Salam seize property No. 1803, he also seized part of property No. 976 to expand the cemetery, despite both properties belonging to the Damascus Countryside Governorate and the Endowments Directorate of the Assad regime.

Abu Ghiath told Aljumhuriya.net, “We found out that Musallam Salam had taken charge of the selling of graves. Town residents agreed to buy them from him, paid in advance and obtained receipts, with the promise that he would deliver the graves later. However, many of us, myself included, were scammed and never actually received them.”

According to the testimonies of the townspeople we spoke with, Salam prepares the graves, sells them, and finalizes the contracts in coordination with the municipal council and the cemetery committee. The cost of a grave ranges from 13 to 18 million Syrian pounds. Salam even went so far as to advertise the sale of graves on the walls of the municipal building.

The “Siwar al-Sham” Facebook page confirmed that Musallam Salam, in collaboration with the municipality of Ein Tarma, had sold about 4,600 graves on paper between 2019 and October 2023, for approximately 40 billion Syrian pounds. Salam claimed that he had already built 3,300 graves, and that he will build a third cemetery to make up for the shortage of space in the new cemetery.

The Damascus Countryside Endowments Directorate sent a letter to the municipality of Ein Tarma, requesting it to provide a list of the individuals who had purchased graves in the new cemetery established on property No. 1803, and to compare it to the plan approved by the municipal council and the handover committee. The Directorate emphasized that every grave not numbered in the plan is considered public property and cannot be sold or invested.

Letter from Damascus Countryside Endowments Directorate to Ein Tarma Municipality, 10 August 2022

The Ein Tarma municipality tried to sidestep the issue, claiming it had no records of individuals who purchased graves. It stated that Musallam Salam had not provided any sales records and admitted to selling only five graves. The municipality urged anyone with a receipt for a grave purchase in the new Ein Tarma cemetery to come forward to verify their names.

Not content with merely defrauding its residents, the Ein Tarma municipality went as far as to blackmail them. Mansour, who lives in Ein Tarma, shared his experience: “We purchased a grave through Muslim Salam and completed the payment after signing a final sales contract. He promised to hand over the grave to us once it was ready with a tombstone. Despite our persistent requests, he refused to give us the grave unless we paid an additional 500,000 Syrian pounds for the tombstone, and withheld the tombstone despite us having already paid for the grave in advance.”

Several Ein Tarma residents, including Mansour, fell victim to blackmail. Aljumhuriya.net obtained a photograph that shows a location where Musallam Salam stores multiple tombstones. This follows his refusal to provide them to the individuals who had purchased the gravesites, insisting they pay for the tombstones first.

Sidestepping the Law

The recurrent fraudulent activities of Musallam Salam and his colleagues in the municipal council led the townspeople to lodge complaints with the regime’s Damascus Countryside Governorate. Consequently, on April 11, 2023, the governorate established a committee to look into Ein Tarma municipality’s misconduct. By July 2023, it issued a statement confirming that Musallam Salam had illegally registered the land of Ein Tarma cemetery, specifically property No. 1803, in his own name in the land registry. Furthermore, he was found to be involved in the unauthorized investment and sale of gravesites on this cemetery site, collecting payments through receipts printed for his personal account, thus misleading citizens into believing they were officially sanctioned.

Statement from Damascus Countryside Governorate, 11 July 2023

The Damascus Countryside Governorate ordered a halt to all incomplete grave construction by Musallam Salam, and forbade him from selling more. It declared that all completed graves were to be considered a donation from the owner, and demanded that the Ein Tarma municipality take control of all graves constructed on properties No. 1803 and 976, where Musallam Salam had built the graves.

Directive from the Damascus Countryside Governorate to Ein Tarma Municipality, 6 July 2023

In addition, the regime’s Directorate of Social Affairs and Labor had previously, in March 2018, issued a directive to the Damascus Countryside Governorate, calling for the suspension of Al-Birr Association for Charity and Social Services, operated by Musallam Salam, citing his engagement in violations and misuse of charity work for personal gain.

Directive from the Directorate of Social Affairs and Labor to Damascus Countryside Governorate, 7th March 2018

Salam attempted to bypass this ruling by renaming Al-Birr Association, which he managed, to Sama AlSham Group. Under this new name, he collected donations daily from mosques, merchants and philanthropists. These funds were then distributed as bribes to members of the municipal council, some of whom were his relatives and facilitated his operations.

A source with close ties to the Ein Tarma municipality told Aljumhuriya.net on condition of anonymity: “Musallam Salam disregarded the government’s directives and continued to sell graves, despite the ban on properties No. 1803 and 976. He backdated the grave sale contracts to avoid detection, in coordination with Youssef al-Qadi, who served as deputy and then mayor of the Ein Tarma municipality”.

We examined several of these sales contracts and contacted their owners. All contracts were registered with earlier dates, despite owners confirming that the purchases were made in 2023, not on the dates mentioned in the contracts.

Despite the governorate’s directive to seize properties No. 976 and 1803, where the cemetery is located, and stop Musallam Salam from selling graves, the Ein Tarma municipality continued to back him. It submitted a request to the Damascus Countryside Governorate, seeking permission for Salam to build a wall for the cemetery, under the pretext that the governorate did not have enough budget to build it.

Letter from Ein Tarma Municipality to Damascus Countryside Governorate, 23 August 2023

As the violations by the Ein Tarma municipality escalated, its president, Maher Bayazid, was removed from his position in August last year. Youssef al-Qadi, who had been Bayazid’s deputy and a strong supporter of Musallam Salam, was appointed his replacement, leveraging his role as the head of the Cemeteries Committee.

Burial Forbidden in Jobar

More than five years after the regime regained control of Jobar, it continues to bar residents from returning to their homes, citing the area’s inclusion in a regulatory plan. It also prohibits them from burying their dead in the local cemetery and forces them to purchase graves in Ein Tarma. Some have fallen victim to fraud in this process.

Abu al-Zein, who was displaced from Jobar, recounts his experience: “Two years ago, I bought a grave in the new cemetery of Ein Tarma because the regime wouldn’t allow us to use the cemetery in Jobar. I paid 8 million Syrian pounds to Musallam Salam, in addition to 300,000 pounds for burial plot tax.”

“Despite paying,” he continues, “Musallam Salam kept delaying the grave’s delivery. Eventually, he provided us with a grave number and a headstone. The real shock came months later when my father passed away. As we went to open the grave for his burial, we discovered that not only was our headstone missing, but the grave already contained the remains of an unknown individual.”

Incensed, Abu al-Zein confronted Musallam Salam in his office about the situation. Salam, for his part, “explained it away as a mistake, and promised to arrange for a grave in a third cemetery he planned to open once the new cemetery was full.” Abu al-Zein was forced to bury his father in the Najha cemetery in the Damascus countryside. Days later, he filed a legal complaint against Musallam Salam and the Ein Tarma municipality, demanding his right to the grave he had purchased.

Abu al-Zein’s experience is not unique among those displaced from Jobar. Several others have experienced similar fraud. In response, the Jobar Charity Association established a committee to address this issue, approaching the Damascus Countryside Governorate and obtaining a letter to reclaim the rights to the graves. However, the Ein Tarma municipality has yet to act on the Governorate’s letter and continues to sell the disputed graves to multiple buyers.

Wholesale Abuses

The violations of Ein Tarma’s municipality extend beyond grave trading. They also include illegal rooftop construction, facilitated by Youssef al-Qadi during his time as deputy mayor (given that his stint as mayor lasted no more than three months). During his time as deputy, al-Qadi authorized permits for these unlawful constructions, approved cement pouring permissions, and acquired substantial quantities of subsidized cement from Al-Omran Foundation. Even after his removal from office in October 2023, al-Qadi continued to invest in these unauthorized constructions.

A document obtained by Aljumhuriya.net from the Ein Tarma municipality addressed to the Al-Omran Foundation revealed a request for 38 tons of cement. This was intended for Musallam Salam to use in cladding for one of the buildings.

Letter from the Ein Tarma Municipality to the Al-Omran Foundation, 24 June 2023

An anonymous source also informed Aljumhuriya.net that Musallam Salam obtained a license to acquire cement and add new floors to a building in Ein Tarma, despite a report from the Public Safety Committee warning that the building could not support excessive weight due to its fragile infrastructure and the existence of tunnels underneath, which makes it particularly vulnerable to earthquakes. Nonetheless, Youssef al-Qadi, deputy mayor of Ain Tarma, approved this license.

The same informant also claimed that “Musallam Salam receives diesel fuel for each plot of land on which he builds a cemetery in Ein Tarma – this in coordination with his uncle, Mohammad Khair Khaled, the director of the Agricultural Association, who distributes the diesel to Salam instead of the farmers who are more entitled to these allocations”.

Furthermore, the Ein Tarma municipality manipulated purchase invoices to reap profits in the millions of Syrian pounds. Despite receiving support from civil society organizations and some donors, the municipality was not transparent with these donations. For instance, it collected 85 million Syrian pounds to purchase a bulldozer for municipal use, but only paid 40 million Syrian pounds for it; the remaining funds disappeared. After a while, the bulldozer, which was of substandard quality, broke down and was abandoned in the municipal garage. We obtained a photograph showing the bulldozer, now resembling a scrap heap more than a piece of operational machinery.

Expensive Graves

Securing a gravesite in Damascus and its countryside has become as expensive as real estate, posing a significant challenge for the poor to find a final resting place for their loved ones. Grave prices have skyrocketed, with a plot in Damascus cemeteries like al-Dahdah, Bab al-Saghir, and Sheikh Raslan costing around 40 million Syrian pounds, and around 25 million in other cemeteries. This has led many who can’t afford these prices to look for alternatives outside the city.

A notable alternative is the Najha cemetery near al-Husseiniya in the Damascus countryside, where burial costs no more than 300 thousand Syrian pounds. However, some families are determined to bury their deceased in the capital even if they can’t afford it, and as a result, they have turned to renting graves annually, an arrangement made with the cemetery guard or gravedigger, which also includes a fee paid to the burial office. The annual rent for a grave ranges from 1 million to 5 million in the main cemeteries and from 500,000 to 3 million in others.

The Damascus Governorate Burials Office previously confirmed that cemeteries within the capital have reached full capacity, leaving no space for new burials. This situation has led to widespread exploitation by grave brokers and some real estate office owners in Damascus.

The issue of overcrowded cemeteries extends beyond the capital to various towns in the Damascus countryside, including Ein Tarma. This has led to the municipality’s practice of selling the same grave to multiple individuals through falsified contracts, resulting in people losing their rights. This situation has been exacerbated by the failure of the Syrian regime’s government to hold those involved in these corrupt practices accountable.