For the past week, fighting has intensified around Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in the suburbs of Damascus. The Islamic militant group ISIS launched an attack on the camp on Wednesday; the capture of Yarmouk would represent the group's deepest foray into Damascus and establish fighters just five kilometres away from the Bashar Al-Assad's Presidential Palace.
The appearance of ISIS in the camp seems to have shocked many – the group has a hold over much of eastern Syria, part of the north and the Qalamoun Mountains near neighbouring Lebanon, but an organised presence in the outer suburbs of Damascus was not known of until now. In a matter of days, ISIS has taken control of 90 per cent of the camp, and reports of beheadings are already surfacing. The Syrian regime has responded with barrel bombs and air strikes.
Palestinian neutrality and the neutrality of Yarmouk were deemed essential from the beginning of the uprising against Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad; the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacres in Beirut and the mass expulsions of stateless Palestinians from Kuwait during the first Gulf War are still painful memories for many. However, Yarmouk was unwillingly dragged into the war with Syrian rebel forces inside the camp fighting against Assad's forces and with each other. The Syrian regime also enforced a devastating siege on the camp, making the population increasingly desperate. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the recent fighting broke out between ISIS and the Palestinian group Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis. The camp had previously fallen under the control of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Al-Nusra and reports from eyewitnesses claim the group is fighting alongside ISIS, its former rival.
Mahmoud Al-Hanafi, the managing director of Witness, an independent association working to improve the lives of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, commented that: "The camp has become the centre of the conflict and both sides are trying to take control of it… [Yarmouk] is considered a gateway to Damascus – that's why it's significant to all parties." Due to access issues, it is difficult to know the details of what's happening inside the camp, he said, but we do know that the situation is "dire".
The name "Yarmouk" first reached our attention when a local photographer accompanying a food distribution mission to the camp in January 2014 took a picture that went viral. The image of a throng of desperate people spilling out of half destroyed buildings as they waited for food became an emblem of Syria's suffering civilians. The delivery was a tiny crack in a long, exhausting siege placed on the camp by the Syrian regime – food deliveries were only possible on 131 days throughout the whole of 2014, and more often than not, less than half the required amount got through.
At least 135 Palestinians have died as a direct result of the siege, which is now in 640th day. Many of these deaths have been from starvation; a Muslim cleric was forced to issue a fatwa allowing people to eat the meat of cats, donkeys and dogs trapped in the camp. The camp has now been without running water for 210 days and has not had electricity for 720 days. Mahd, a camp resident, told UNRWA that: "The most difficult thing is when my kids get up in the morning and ask for milk and bread and it is not available and I have to give them a radish or some vegetable, and sometimes that is not available." Ra'eda, another resident, said: "There is no wood, we are burning furniture and clothes to keep warm. People have burned their bedrooms, chairs, living rooms."
The aid delivery situation has only worsened with the recent flare up. "Since the fighting broke out, no aid whatsoever has reached the camp. Things are beyond desperate," said UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness. Even before the fighting, aid delivery was "woefully inadequate", he said. "What we're facing is a slaughter of the innocents; the conflict has engulfed civilian areas." There is desperate need for the opening of a humanitarian corridor to allow civilians to leave. Whether ISIS will allow such a prospect is another question – international pressure on the Syrian regime to protect civilians means their presence may provide ISIS with a brief human shield that prevents the total destruction of the camp by government forces.
Prior to the war, Palestinian refugees in Syria were considered comparatively better off than those who had fled to other Arab countries. They were not Syrian citizens but they could work and own property, unlike Palestinian refugees in Lebanon for example. Yarmouk itself was a thriving pocket of economic activity. When the current crisis began, it was home to the country's largest Palestinian refugee community and resembled a residential district rather than a refugee camp.
Since then, the camp's population has diminished from 160,000 to a mere 18,000. The former residents are splintered across the globe and most are rebuilding their lives in another country for at least a second time. Those unlucky enough to remain face a desperate battle for survival.
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