Middle East

U.N. seeks access to Palestinians starving in Syria

A boy works in a bakery in Aleppo city December 30, 2013. (REUTERS/Jalal Alhalabi)

BEIRUT: The United Nations Monday appealed for the Syrian army and rebel fighters to allow urgent aid to reach a Palestinian district of southern Damascus where it said 15 people had died of malnutrition in recent months.

U.N. Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said five Palestinian refugees had died in the Yarmouk district over the weekend. Ten others have died since September, the last time the U.N. was able to deliver aid to Yarmouk.

“The situation has progressively deteriorated for some 20,000 Palestinians trapped inside Yarmouk,” he told Reuters. Before the conflict around 160,000 people lived in the area.

“The continued presence of armed groups that entered the area at the end of 2012 and its closure by government forces have thwarted all our humanitarian efforts.”

Rami Abdel-Rahman of the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has a network of activists on the ground, also confirmed the numbers. He said those who died over the weekend included an elderly man, a man suffering from unknown disabilities, and a woman.

A spokesperson from the opposition Syrian National Coalition told The Daily Star that what was happening in Yarmouk was a deliberate regime policy of starvation.

“The use of food as a tool of war is not only abhorrent, but is also a violation of international law. ... It’s important to remember that the use of this war tactic hurts those who are most vulnerable: children, the elderly and the sick. This only further emphasizes the criminality and evil of the Assad regime.”

She added that “while the international community is waiting for signs of good intentions from the Assad regime before Geneva II [talks, President Bashar] Assad’s [ regime] continues its deadly plan of besieging cities in its attempt to punish the revolution’s social base and put pressure on the revolutionary forces before negotiations.”

Syria is home to half a million Palestinians, refugees of the 1948 conflict which led to the creation of the state of Israel.

Before the 2011 uprising against Assad, many of them lived in the Yarmouk neighborhood on the southern edge of the Syrian capital.

But the 2011 protests led to a civil war which has driven out most Yarmouk residents, forcing them once again into homelessness. Those who still remain in Yarmouk have been trapped by the fighting for months.“If this situation is not addressed urgently, it may be too late to save the lives of thousands of people including children,” Gunness said. “We urgently ask all parties to immediately heed their legal obligations and facilitate the urgent provision of humanitarian assistance to Yarmouk and other Palestinian refugee camps where fighting impedes the delivery of such assistance.”

A video uploaded by activists Sunday showed people crowded around an UNRWA official, asking about aid deliveries. “We just want this situation to end,” one resident said. “We want the roads to be open for us, for people to come in and out safely ... We can’t tolerate it any more.”

In addition to food shortages, the area is also suffering from medicinal shortages, the Observatory said.

Government forces are also besieging other rebel-held areas around Damascus, including the nearby area of Moadamieh, where activists said at least two women and four children died of hunger-related illnesses through September.

This week, Moadamieh’s rebels accepted a humiliating deal where they would receive food in exchange for raising the government flag over the area.

Three small pickup trucks entered with bread, rice and canned food Saturday. Activists said it wasn’t enough for some 8,000 people who remain in the town.

Until June 2013, residents could still access UNRWA assistance at one of the entrances to the camp, but since July “Palestinian refugees have been trapped in the area, with little or no access or freedom of movement,” according to the agency.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on December 31, 2013, on page 1.




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