The indignation caused by the photograph by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) and news of dozens of deaths caused by starvation, the lack of drugs or killings by snipers while searching for food, even dogs or cats, did not put an end to the two-year long siege by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad who controls 50% of the country.
Silence has fallen on the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, eight kilometres from Damascus; but the about 18,000 Palestinian and Syrian refugees trapped there continue to go hungry. There is little drinking water, no fuel and no drugs or health care. The main hospital is the Palestine Hospital, which has often been bombed. The Red Crescent has reported at least 104 cases of jaundice, which may indicate the spread of Hepatitis A. To make things worse and add to the suffering of these people, this winter there was also the Huda storm that swept the Middle East. Inhabitants imprisoned in the camp’s two square kilometres, in heavily damaged buildings, often without windows, use anything to try and keep warm, even clothes and furniture, risking death by toxic fumes. Furthermore, what little is available on the black market is exorbitantly expensive.
The United Nations Agency was recently told by a camp resident, Anas, that “To understand what life is like in Yarmouk, turn off the electricity, the water, the heating, eat once a day, live in the dark, warm up by burning wood.”
The UNRWA has been unable to provide humanitarian aid since the beginning of December. The trucks are targeted by snipers; the distribution of food, water and drugs has been prevented or interrupted by a deteriorating security situation, while fighting has intensified in the area. In 2014, the U.N. agency managed to deliver food only for 131 days and in any case in insufficient amounts to answer the needs of the people. Thousands have no control whatsoever over their lives, living in the crossfire of troops loyal to Assad and various armed opposition groups.
According to the British website Middle East Eye (MEE), there are at least seven different armed groups inside the camp. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (FPLP-GC) is seen as a sort of militia at Assad’s service inside Yarmouk. Siding with the government in Damascus there are the men of Fatah al al-Intifada, mainly Palestinian refugees who live in Lebanon and have close links with the Shiite Lebanese movement Hezbollah, whose militias fight with troops loyal to the Syrian president. On the opposition’s front there are a number of different groups, Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis close to the Muslim Brotherhood; Al-Uhda al Umariya, a small splinter group of the FPLP – GC; the qaedists belonging to the al Nusra Front which has both Palestinian and Syrian fighters; Ahrar al Sham’s more moderate Syrian Islamists; the Free Syrian Army in which many Syrian army deserters fight; unofficial supporters of both Hamas and Fatah. In order to allow humanitarian aid convoys to enter, it is necessary to have the agreement of all these factions as well as the army surrounding Yarmouk, but this has been achieved only a few times in the past two years and UNRWA’s appeals have remained unheeded. Hunger has become a weapon.
The Yarmouk refugee camp, which opened in 1957 for Palestinians fleeing the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 and 1967, had over time become a lively town, with a population that before 2011 amounted to about 160,000 people. It hosted a third of the about 500,000 Palestinians in Syria and was a relatively wealthy trade and cultural centre, considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora in Syria. This settlement, which is in a strategic position on the road to Damascus, then became a battlefield and Palestinians’ efforts to be guaranteed a sort of neutrality in this conflict failed. Initially the government army remained outside, while inside Yarmouk divisions between the Palestinians themselves resulted in open clashes between Assad’s opponents and supporters. At the end of 2012, the presence of armed rebel groups, among them jihadist factions, caused ferocious fighting and bombing by the government air force, reducing Yarmouk to rubble, and emptied by the mass flight of its inhabitants.
On January 18th they took to the streets to protest against the blockade, described over a year ago as “brutal” by Amnesty International, which accused the government in Damascus of “war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Since July 2013, the siege – started in December 2012 – has become even harsher and almost total. The UNRWA has not even managed to get permission or a group of students who left on January 23rd and 24th to sit exams, to return to the camp. They would have brought with them food and clothes for their relatives.
For the Palestinian civilians trapped in Yarmouk this is a collective punishment they compare to the one inflicted on Gaza. Assad, who has always used as propaganda his role as a supporter of the Palestinian cause, speaks of the camp as a hotbed of “terrorists” to justify the siege and the bombing. Some believe it is revenge against those who sided with the opposition, probably considered ungrateful by Damascus, which recognises more rights to Palestinians than other Arab countries. “The regime expected Palestinians to show greater loyalty (to Assad). If a Palestinian is suspected of doing something wrong, his punishment will be far harsher,” said Syrian activist Rami al Sayed to the MEE website.
No one speaks of what is happening in Yarmouk and to the Palestinians trapped there, except in the reports of a few humanitarian organisations.
“The Palestinians in Yarmouk are obliged to face three levels of censorship; that of the international media, that of groups who say they support Palestine and that of Palestinian officials and activists who hardly mention us,” said an inhabitant. “In order to break the siege it is necessary to first break the silence surrounding it.”
Translation by Francesca Simmons