Yesterday, I described the suffering of the Palestinian inhabitants of the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, who have been exposed to arbitrary shelling, helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, and systematic starvation.
This violent background must be taken into consideration when analyzing the ceasefire that was instituted in February 2014, which has since been broken and again restored. It is one of a series of such ceasefires in the Damascus area, presented by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as part of a process of national reconciliation. However, the ceasefire in Yarmouk had nothing to do with reconciliation; it was an imposed solution. Since neither the armed rebels nor the government forces could achieve any strategic gains using military means, the regime chose starvation and the deprivation of electricity, heating, and medicine in order to break the camp’s resistance.
Deprivation of Resources
By February 2014, the situation in Yarmouk was unbearable. The government’s refusal to allow food and medicine into the camp was described in yesterday’s post, but there were other humanitarian issues as well. Since April 2013, the Yarmouk camp has suffered a complete electrical blackout, and fuel is either unavailable or sold in small quantities at exorbitant prices. The energy stoppage has meant that the al-Basel and Palestine Hospitals, which are the only two hospitals left in Yarmouk, are unable to function—disabling, for example, the incubator units. The lack of heating has also caused the death of several people.
The only resource that the Assad government hasn’t been able to restrict is water. Water arrives to Yarmouk from two sources, the first being the main Damascus water supply from Ain al-Fijah northwest of the city and the second being a collection of wells in opposition-controlled areas of the camp. But humans can’t live on water alone.
The February 2014 Ceasefire
After extensive negotiations, a local ceasefire agreement covering the Yarmouk camp was finally signed on February 10. The agreement had two main conditions:
As these terms make clear, the opposition was desperate and under pressure from civilians inside the camp to make concessions. Had an agreement not been struck, casualties would have far surpassed the 158 cases of death by starvation that have so far been documented by the Palestinian League for Human Rights-Syria (PLHR-S), a human rights group for which I am the spokesperson.
As part of the ceasefire agreement, rebel groups pulled out of the camp and joint Palestinian patrols took their place. In return, the government loosened restrictions at its checkpoints around Yarmouk, allowing humanitarian aid deliveries to resume. But there were soon complaints that regime forces were stalling aid deliveries, smuggling arms into the camp to prepare for a resumption of fighting, and arresting Palestinians waiting for their food parcels. Additionally, unconfirmed reports spoke about the arrest of several students on their way out from the camp, heading to schools and universities as part of the deal. A group of activists who had volunteered to deliver food to the camp were also arrested and taken to regime detention centers. Their destiny remains unknown, although two of them are thought to have died under torture, according to an unpublished report by the PLHR-S.
Breakdown of the Ceasefire
In early March, after around twenty days of ceasefire, the truce collapsed. The opposition groups in Yarmouk issued an ultimatum to the regime, demanding that within twenty-four hours the regime should provide wheat to the bakeries still operating in Yarmouk, open all entrances to the camp, and release the people arrested in the aid delivery lines. The government refused to comply, and the rebel groups moved back in. On March 2 and 3, several shells fell on the camp and clashes resumed, again cutting off the aid deliveries.
Since then, new attempts have been made to restore the ceasefire. In late March, another agreement was reached and fighters evacuated the camp. However, the UN reported that the Syrian government still wouldn’t release the food aid. Between March 10 and April 10, only 3,390 food packages arrived to Yarmouk, each intended to last no more than ten days, for a population of about 18,000 people.
Recently, the situation grew even worse. Since April 9, Syrian authorities have cut off what little food aid was being allowed inside the refugee camp. According to a UN official speaking to the Guardian, food in the camp is now about to run out completely. Consequently, the belief in the benefits of these ceasefire agreements is evaporating. Yarmouk’s inhabitants are increasingly moving to surrounding areas, whenever possible—a slow process of displacement that will in the end lead to an empty camp and the destruction of a community.
Ceasefires as “Reconciliation”
The Assad government seeks to portray the ceasefires in Yarmouk and other neighborhoods around Damascus as the result of a process of musalaha, or reconciliation, supposedly proving that Syrians can resolve the conflict without external involvement or political negotiations. Thus, the government pushed for ceasefires in Damascus in time for the Geneva II conference on peace in Syria, which was held in two rounds in January and February 2014.
Of course, the ceasefires also serve a military function by relieving the pressure on government forces. When one area is forced into a ceasefire arrangement, the regime can initiate battle in another area. In this way, the ceasefires around Damascus were followed by the intensification of regime attacks in the Qalamoun region.
No Reconciliation by Starvation
In some areas, the ceasefires have held better than in Yarmouk, but it would be a grave mistake to understand these agreements as an example of genuine reconciliation.
Photographs from Yarmouk and other areas have shown the victims of Assad’s strategy of starvation, both the dead and the dying—emaciated men and women looking like ghosts. Their suffering was the real foundation of the ceasefire agreement in Yarmouk, not a process of mutual recognition and reconciliation. Ceasefires whose sole aim is to escape a policy of starvation will not provide Syria with lasting peace. Yet the international community seems content to wait silently as this tragedy unfolds.
What can Yarmouk and its remaining 18,000 inhabitants expect for tomorrow? Will we witness a repetition of the destruction of Nahr al-Bared, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon that was razed by the Lebanese Army in 2007? Will today’s events end in the complete destruction of Yarmouk? The consequences would be enormous—it would radically and forever change the conditions for Palestinian life in Syria.
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 a 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.