Yarmouk residents battle with death and fight for life

Yarmouk residents battle with death and fight for life
Feature: Syria's largest Palestinian refugee camp has been under siege for two years, with residents forced to eat grass and melt snow to survive.
5 min read
12 February, 2015
Tens of thousands queue for the few hundred food parcels available in each delivery [Getty]

For nearly two years, the residents of Yarmouk refugee camp, in south Damascus, have suffered from a crippling siege by the Syrian regime and its allied militias.

Yarmouk is the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, but due to its opposition to the regime, and it being home to some opposition fighters, thousands of civilians holed up in the camp are suffering some of the worst conditions anywhere in Syria.

Starvation and disease have strangled the camp, with conditions reminiscent of the Middle Ages.

Efforts by international relief organisations to alleviate the suffering have been frequently hindered by the troops blockading the camp.

Regime forces give a variety of reasons for choking the camp, but principal among them appears to be that it is controlled by Palestinian fighters, who oppose Assad.

'Catastrophic' conditions

The UN's Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees issued a statement last Sunday warning that the lives of 18,000 Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk were under "serious threat".

The agency described conditions in the camp as "catastrophic", due to the siege and continuous shelling by regime artillery. Inside, there is little or no food, water and medicine.

Yarmouk's residents have made frequent cries for help to the outside world, through videos that have been circulated online. Still, their calls appear to go unheeded.

They have pleaded with UNRWA to put pressure on Damascus to allow in humanitarian relief and medical aid - to no avail.

"Last Tuesday, the complete blockade imposed on Yarmouk reached its 584th day," Hassan Abdul Alim, an activist and member of the Yarmouk Media Office, told al-Araby al-Jadeed.

"Electricity has been cut off from the camp for over 680 days, and water has been cut off from the camp for over five months."

The Academy for Palestinian Refugee Studies estimates that more than 164 Palestinians in Yarmouk have died as a direct result of the siege. Deaths recorded are largely due to starvation, hypothermia, and a lack of medical care.

Hunger and pain

Muammar al-Yasiri, a resident of the refugee camp, paints a horrific picture of life in Yarmouk.

"[Residents] are forced to cook grass that grows in the gardens and parks in the winter with a little bit of oil in order to curb their hunger and keep themselves alive. At the beginning of January, people had to melt large amounts of snow to turn it into drinking water," he said.

Only a few children are able to attend classes in the limited number of schools that remain open in Yarmouk.

Ever-increasing prices of fuel has forced residents to burn their furniture to keep warm during nights that can drop well below zero. It goes without saying that there is no way for residents to speak to loved ones outside the camp.

Fayiz Halawa, a nurse in the camp, said that, despite the grim situation, doctors and nurses are doing their best to ensure that clinics in the camp continue to function.

     Medical staff amputate limbs using the most primitive instruments – without anesthesia, without antiseptic.

"We are lacking all kinds of medical equipment in the camp, which forces staff to use materials that have not been sterilised to treat wounds," he said.

"This forces medical staff to amputate the limbs of wounded people that could have been otherwise treated."

Due to the siege, doctors in Yarmouk work without operating rooms, sterilising equipment, medicine or anesthesia.

Injuries caused by the regime's indiscriminate shelling of the camp forces medical staff to amputate limbs using the most primitive instruments - without anesthesia, without antiseptic.

Control for the camp

Controlling the camp are several Palestinian armed factions who oppose the Syrian regime.

The most notable group is Aknaf Bayt al Maqdis, which was formed in Yarmouk more than two years ago. It is made up of fighters who defected from the regime-allied Palestinian militias, Fatah al Intifada and the PFLP-GC, and joined by Yarmouk residents who volunteered to fight.

When the Syrian revolution started four years ago, Yarmouk was the scene of mass demonstrations against the regime.

Palestinians in the camp were unhappy with the way Damascus manipulated Palestinian refugees, and how its militias controlled the camp.

Despite being Palestinians themselves, these armed groups reportedly opened fire on demonstrations, and are believed responsible for the deaths of scores of peaceful protesters.

Refuge for victims

When the southern suburbs of Damascus were bombarded by the regime, many residents fled their homes and found sanctuary in Yarmouk.

In the end, opposition units and Palestinian fighters entered the camp and removed the regime's forces in all but a few areas.

Yarmouk has witnessed scenes
of biblical proportions [AFP]

Ibrahim Abu Nasser, a member of the Palestinian Aknaf Bayt al Maqdis Brigades, said that there was no sign of fighters from al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State group, or Free Syrian Army fighters in Yarmouk.

"The people in control of the camp at present are Palestinians who refuse to yield to the Syrian regime and the factions that work for it," he said.

Abu Nasser said that requests by international organisations to deliver aid to the Yarmouk camp have been repeatedly rejected by Damascus.

The reason given is that military operations are taking place in the area and this poses a threat to the lives of relief teams.

"A ceasefire that was agreed upon in the camp to allow humanitarian relief shipments to enter failed because of a deliberate breach of it by the regime. [It] bombed the Yarmouk refugee camp in order to thwart the aid distribution process," he told al-Araby.

In the past week, local relief committees were able to secure the entry of a truck loaded with bread into the camp from the Yalda district. Bread might be a basic commodity, but the lorry was a welcomed lifeline.

Yalda lies south of the camp, and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army, which recently signed a "local truce" with the regime to allow in aid.

Local relief committees were also able to secure 600 relief parcels last weekend, also through Yalda, to be distributed to Yarmouk residents.

Since the siege began, coordination committees have looked for possible routes into the camp to bring in food, water and medicine.

It appears that a local truce organised by the Red Cross might be one of the few opportunities through which residents can have access to basic aid. As Yarmouk's refugees have lived through hell for long enough, this week has come as a miracle.  

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.