The Palestinian community in Syria has been profoundly and catastrophically affected by the past three years of bloodshed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Originally established in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees from the 1948–1949 Arab-Israeli war, Yarmouk has transformed over the years from a refugee camp south of Damascus to an “urban quarter,” in the words of the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
By the start of the 2011 Syrian uprising, the Yarmouk camp housed some 150,000 Palestinian refugees, the largest concentration in Syria. The area is located 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) south of the heart of Damascus, but it is still inside the city boundaries and is now part of the urban sprawl of the Syrian capital. To its south, Yarmouk is surrounded by the Syrian neighborhoods of al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda, while the orchards of al-Qadam lie to its west and the Tadamon neighborhood to its east. All are densely populated, poor neighborhoods.
The uprising in Damascus grew on the fringes of the city throughout 2011, but Yarmouk stayed relatively quiet. The residents of the camp strove to maintain neutrality in response to what was happening in Syria, and the camp turned into a refuge for Syrians fleeing repression and fighting in the Damascus area. By autumn 2011, some 900,000 Syrians and Palestinians lived in the Yarmouk camp, according to a report in the Journal of Palestine Studies by Syrian Palestinian journalist and sociologist Nidal Bitari.
Yarmouk Is Drawn Into the War
Prior to the eruption of major conflict, the streets of Yarmouk were vibrant with the varied dialects of both Palestinians and Syrians from all over the country, but as a result of Yarmouk’s geography, a tension had always existed within the camp. The surrounding neighborhoods, like al-Hajar al-Aswad and Tadamon, are densely populated and generally poor, and they were quickly drawn into the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
By November 2012, some 620 Palestinians had been killed all over Syria, 184 of them in Yarmouk. By that time, most of the shelling was concentrated on the edges of the Yarmouk camp—mainly Safaad Street and Jawneh Street, where many grenades fell—while Palestine Street, which runs parallel to Yarmouk’s main street, was targeted by sniper fire. The central areas of the camp were relatively calm, but the population lived in tense anticipation.
Yarmouk was drawn into the conflict gradually, either by the regime’s negligence or on purpose. “One-third of the total documented Palestinian victims all over Syria were at Yarmouk” according to Alaa Aboud, a Syrian Palestinian human rights lawyer who is the head of the Palestinian League for Human Rights-Syria (PLHR-S), a grassroots network of activists documenting human rights violations by all sides in the Syrian conflict. The population dealt with that fact calmly, maintaining the neutrality of the area. Funerals were held, and life carried on in the camp—up until one day in December 2012.
On December 16, 2012, a MIG jet bombed a number of sites within the camp, including a mosque, a hospital, and a school sheltering refugees. At least 40 people died, although the numbers were difficult to verify because bodies were taken to the Mujtahid governmental hospital in Damascus, according to activists who witnessed that day. From that point on, Yarmouk was embroiled in the fighting and tens of thousands of its inhabitants were forced to flee. A recent report by the PLHR-S notes “the destruction of a large number of homes and the displacement of more than 200 thousand of . . . [the camp’s] Palestinian and Syrian inhabitants, thousands of whom have sought refuge in other countries, primarily Lebanon, which houses around 60 thousand.”
The Beginning of the Siege
Government forces eventually surrounded the Yarmouk camp and placed it under siege, cutting off humanitarian aid and food deliveries. This siege has led to more than 100 deaths related to dehydration and famine so far. But the siege was not so strict initially—it has been tightened in two stages. The first partial siege was instituted as part of the regime’s initial crackdown on Yarmouk, whereas a much tighter and deadlier siege followed later.
Following the MIG airstrike of December 16, 2012, opposition fighters seized control of the camp. That development resulted in regime forces imposing a partial blockade at the entrance of the camp, aided by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a regime-backed Palestinian militant group.
“Civilian families were at first allowed to enter and leave, although they were subject to thorough inspections at the regime checkpoint at the camp’s northern entrance (a large number of violations and incidents of humiliation of families at this checkpoint were recorded during this period). Restrictions were also placed on goods entering the camp,” wrote the PLHR-S in its January 2014 report on the siege.
Total Siege and Starvation
By July 18, 2013, Yarmouk was cut off completely from the outside world and food deliveries had stopped. The camp’s inhabitants started to consume what they had stocked up in anticipation of the blockade, and breaking into the abandoned houses of neighbors or relatives became a routine act of survival. Toward the end of 2013, many began collecting herbs from the few surrounding fields or hunting stray cats and dogs for food. Religious figures even issued a fatwa, an Islamic ruling, to permit people to consume stray animals.
By mid-March 2014, the death count from the siege stood at around 137 victims, according to Aboud, the director of the PLHR-S, who lived in Yarmouk until he was forced to flee to France as a political refugee. The victims perished due to dehydration or a lack of nutrition and intravenous nutrition.
The starvation in Yarmouk changed the course of the conflict and strengthened the hand of the government. By February 2014, a fragile ceasefire had been instituted that lasted for nineteen days. The background and meaning of this ceasefire, how it was violated, and the new dynamics of the war in Yarmouk and the wider Damascus region will be discussed in tomorrow’s article.
Salim Salamah is a Syrian Palestinian writer, blogger, and activist born in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. In late 2012, he was forced to flee Syria and is now a political refugee in Sweden. He is spokesperson and board member of the Palestinian League for Human Rights-Syria, a group founded in 2011 to document human rights violations against Palestinian refugees in Syria. He tweets at Salim_SYR.