Middle East

Yarmouk: Where horrors have gone from ‘unimaginable’ to ‘normal’

A Syrian Red Crescent worker evacuates children from the besieged Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, south of the Syrian capital Damascus on January 19, 2014.(AFP PHOTO STR)

BEIRUT: Besieged since June, nearly 20,000 people in Damascus’ neighborhood of Yarmouk are so desperate for food that many eat stray animals, and some women have resorted to prostitution, according to residents reached via the Internet.

“Many here have slaughtered and eaten cats and dogs, and even a donkey,” said Yarmouk resident Ali, who was a university student when Syria’s revolt erupted in 2011.

“One man who killed a dog couldn’t find any meat to eat on its body, because even the dogs are starving,” he told AFP via Skype.

“What was unimaginable a few months ago is normal now.”

Once a refugee camp, Yarmouk evolved generations ago into a bustling commercial and residential district, where both Syrians and Palestinians resided.

In 2011, it was home to some 150,000 Palestinians registered in Syria after waves of displacement forced their ancestors to seek shelter following Israel’s establishment.

When war spread to areas of Damascus in the summer of 2012, thousands of people from other parts of the capital fled to Yarmouk, swelling its population further.

But Yarmouk soon became a war zone too, as Syrians taking up arms against President Bashar Assad’s regime moved into the camp.

Some Palestinians joined the rebels, others backed pro-regime groups, mainly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

In June, the army imposed a total blockade on Yarmouk, which covers an area of just over 2 square kilometers.

Most residents had fled by then, but, according to the United Nations, 18,000 civilians remain.

Seven months later, food and medical supplies have all but run out, with prices skyrocketing to up to $100 for a kilogram of rice, residents say.

“The situation is so desperate that women are selling their bodies to men who stocked up food before the siege was imposed, for just a cup of rice or bulgur,” Ali said.

“Imagine the feeling of a father unable to feed his children, as they wail from hunger,” he added.

Seventy-eight people, including 25 women and three children, have died as a result of the shortages, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Of these, 61 died in the past three months, according to the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and doctors inside the country for its reports.

Tasked with meeting the Palestinian refugees’ needs, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency has struggled to secure access to the camp.

Only two convoys have made it into Yarmouk in recent months, bringing in a scant 138 parcels of food aid. According to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, “the aid allowed in ... so far is shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these (18,000) civilians.”

The needs include “powder milk for babies, polio vaccines for infants and basic foodstuffs,” Gunness said.

On Jan. 18, the government said it would facilitate aid access.

“However, the agency is extremely disappointed that ... the assurances given by the authorities have not been backed by action on the ground to facilitate the regular, rapid entry into Yarmouk of the substantial quantities of relief required to make a difference to thousands of civilians,” Gunness told AFP.

While regime and opposition representatives are meeting in Switzerland for peace talks and to negotiate aid access for Homs in central Syria, it appears Yarmouk’s fate is not being addressed.

PFLP-GC spokesman Anwar Raja blamed the rebels, whom he described as “terrorists,” for the camp’s plight.

“There was an agreement for the Palestinian armed men inside the camp to pressure non-Palestinian armed men to leave,” Raja said, referring to rebels.

“We hope the people will push on the Palestinian armed groups that had pledged to pressure the other armed groups, including the Nusra [Front, an Al-Qaeda affiliate] ... to create a better atmosphere to ensure aid gets in.”

For his part, Wissam Sbaaneh, a member of the Palestinian Jafra Foundation, blamed the PFLP-GC and the army.

“People are asking for milk powder for children and vaccines. What on earth would the fighters want milk powder for?” said Sbaaneh, mocking a PFLP-GC claim that the civilians are being held “hostage” by the armed opposition.

Sbaaneh also said other armed groups, barring the jihadists, have honored the agreement with the regime, and that “civilians are ready to pressure the Nusra Front if the regime proves it is being serious.”

Indeed Monday, the Observatory reported a demonstration in the camp against the Nusra Front.

Observatory director Rami Abdel-Rahman insisted the siege must be lifted altogether.

“Civilians are being starved in order to force them to turn against the rebels. It is a war crime to besiege areas where civilians are present,” Abdel-Rahman told AFP.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on January 30, 2014, on page 8.




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