How Yarmouk refugee camp became the worst place in Syria
Yarmouk, near the centre of Damascus, prospered as a safe haven for Palestinians. Under siege, it is now a prison for its remaining residents, who survive on little food and water, with no hope of escape
on 18 January 2014, barely five miles from the centre of Damascus – with President Bashar al‑Assad’s office complex visible in the distance – a small crowd of desperate people emerged from a seemingly uninhabited wasteland of bomb-shattered buildings. News had spread throughout Yarmouk, a district of the capital that is home to Syria’s largest community of Palestinians, that the government and rebel groups had agreed to allow a delivery of food, briefly opening a crack in a year-long siege that had starved the area’s civilians and caused dozens of deaths.
Families had sent their strongest members to collect the newly arrived supplies, and the hungry throng filled the entire width of a street, throwing up dust in the morning light. The relief workers making the delivery recalled one woman, gaunt with malnutrition, who fell down and was too weak to rise. She died on the spot. The scenes were such that some of these experienced aid workers needed trauma counselling when they returned to headquarters in Damascus.
There was only enough food for a few hundred families. Thousands of disappointed people staggered home empty-handed. But officials from the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), established to aid Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East, hoped that the delivery had set a precedent. They had not publicised it in advance – there was concern that excessive attention would anger the Syrian government – and were reluctant to invite journalists to observe a mission that might have been aborted for security reasons. Four days earlier, an attempted delivery had been abandoned after a mortar exploded very close to the convoy.
After the successful delivery on 18 January, UNRWA officials decided discretion was no longer the best policy. On 31 January, a convoy delivering food to Yarmouk was accompanied by a local photographer, who took a picture of the vast crowd surging through a street lined with the ruins of destroyed buildings. This image quickly became an emblem of the Syrian conflict. To draw attention to the plight of the besieged civilians UNRWA launched a social media campaign (#LetUsThrough) in which millions clicked on a petition to put the image on two of the world’s highest-profile billboards. In Times Square, New York and the Shibuya district of Tokyo people stood in front of giant screens taking selfies, which were then beamed back to Yarmouk as a show of solidarity.
This was how Yarmouk entered the world’s consciousness: a refugee camp designed as a safe haven for the Palestinian diaspora that had become the worst place on earth. No electricity for months. No piped water. No access for food. Worse still, no chance for people to leave or return, except for a handful of emergency medical cases or the few who had the means to pay people-smugglers to get them through the multiple checkpoints. Some called it Syria’s Gaza, but its plight was even worse, because the siege was more comprehensive; Yarmouk was a prison from which there was no escape.
But notoriety can be short-lived. When Gaza came under Israeli bombardment in July 2014 and the world’s media rushed to report the carnage, Yarmouk slipped back into obscurity. The opening in the siege that UNRWA had negotiated in January 2014 applied only fitfully throughout the year: food deliveries were only possible on 131 days, and often less than half the amount required got through. Since 6 December, the siege has once again become impassable. UNRWA reports that it has not been able to deliver any food at all for the past 12 weeks. “We are getting new reports of people dying of malnutrition and of women dying in childbirth, but nothing can be confirmed,” said Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesperson. Unlike in Gaza, where UNRWA has several offices, the organisation cannot enter Yarmouk at all.
As Syria’s civil war enters its fourth year, other towns and villages are suffering long sieges, usually by Assad’s forces but sometimes, as in the case of Nubul and Zahra, two Shia villages north-west of Aleppo, by anti-Assad rebels. Still, Yarmouk stands out, partly because of the large number of trapped civilians – estimated to be around 18,000 – but also because of its political significance. Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades before power passed to his son on his death in 2000, cast his country as the cornerstone of the Arab “axis of resistance” against Israel. This required that he be seen as the supreme defender of Palestinian rights; a leader who would ensure that Palestinian refugees in Syria lived better than those anywhere else in the Middle East. For Yarmouk to come under the control of anti-Assad rebels, and then be bombarded by government forces – to become a spectacle of suffering far worse than Gaza – marked an indelible stain on the mantle that Bashar al-Assadinherited from his father.
Before the Syrian civil war began, Yarmouk was home to 150,000 Palestinians. Though people still refer to it as a “camp”, tents were replaced with solid housing soon after its founding in 1957. In time it became just another district of Damascus. As well as being home to Syria’s largest community of Palestinian refugees, it also housed some 650,000 Syrians.
Nidal Bitari, a co-founder of the Palestinian Association for Human Rights in Syria, fled the country at the end of 2011 after being tipped off that he was wanted by the Assad regime’s security services. But, like most of the Palestinians in Yarmouk, he wanted to stay neutral when the uprising began. As Bitari wrote in a detailed account of Yarmouk’s recent political history published in 2013, Palestinians in Syria lived under better conditions than in any other Arab state: “By law they enjoy almost all the rights and benefits of Syrian nationals except citizenship and the right to vote. They have full access to Syrian schools and universities on the same basis as citizens … And because their numbers are tiny compared to the general Syrian population (less than 2%), the refugees were never perceived as a threat, and the degree of integration between Palestinians and Syrians – through work, education, and intermarriage – has no parallel in the Arab world.”
Within a few days most of the PFLP-GC, the main Palestinian faction supporting the Assad regime, had fled Yarmouk; some defected to the rebels who went on to gain full control. Hundreds of thousands of civilians left. The Syrians of Yarmouk mainly went to relatives and friends in central Damascus or other cities, or moved to Lebanon and Jordan. Palestinians fled to what they hoped would be safer areas inside Syria. Although rebel efforts to capture the rest of Damascus failed, Yarmouk remains in rebel hands today. Some 18,000 civilians still live there, including anywhere between 1,000 and 4,000 Syrians. Still, it is clear that Yarmouk has reverted to being a largely Palestinian enclave.
Assad’s government responded to its defeat in Yarmouk by putting the area under siege. For a few months food could still be brought in from the rural areas to the south, though profiteering was intense. In July 2013 the government tightened its grip and the siege became almost total. Inside Yarmouk fighting erupted between the FSA and Jabhat al Nusra, the latter of which had set up sharia courts. Spasmodic attempts were made to relieve the suffering of Yarmouk’s civilians. In the spring of 2013 Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, even proposed that all of Yarmouk’s 150,000 Palestinian residents move to the West Bank or Gaza. In November 2013, Abbas sent a team to Damascus to discuss humanitarian relief and a ceasefire between the rebels and the government. The idea was to open a safe corridor for the movement of supplies and displaced civilians, but no deal was ever reached.
In September 2014, I met Abu Akram, a member of the PFPL-GC leadership, in a flat on the edge of Yarmouk. A tall older man with one arm in a brace, who moved to Yarmouk from Lebanon in 1994, he had taken part in the abortive ceasefire negotiations with the Syrian opposition, whose breakdown he blamed on the Islamists. A tough, battle-hardened figure firmly allied to the Assad regime, he showed no embarrassment in defending the siege. It was a legitimate tactic, he claimed, in part because the food from UNRWA that was allowed into Yarmouk ended up in the hands of the rebel fighters, for their own use or for sale on the black market.
“We saw that the armed groups were taking food from civilians,” he said, then claimed that boxes of aid meant for Yarmouk could be seen for sale in a nearby district. He even criticised the decision to relax the pressure in early 2014. “It was a mistake to break the siege,” he said. “If we had continued by another week, hunger would have forced them to give up.”
The barbaric nature of sieges has remained unchanged for thousands of years. The aim is to starve the trapped civilians into submission, in the hope they will turn against whatever armed faction controls the territory and persuade them to surrender. The armed faction, in turn, wants to keep the civilians inside so as to make it less likely the besieging army will bring destruction upon the captives. Now, in the 21st century, the very same tactics are being deployed not only in Yarmouk but in several other parts of Syria.
Sieges fuel a war economy in which those who man the checkpoints can run a lucrative business selling permission to leave or return. They encourage smuggling of people and food, and keep prices in the camp’s few markets artificially high. When I visited Yarmouk’s northern entrance in September 2014, I found nothing but bleakness. Syrian government soldiers stood guard near a crossroads known as Batikha – “watermelon” – Square, so named for a green monument of a globe that stands amid a clump of palm trees in the middle of the street. The only route into the camp required a walk through a narrow alley between two five-storey buildings that had most of their windows blown out. The neighbouring alley was shielded by huge white padded sheets strung from the upper floors of buildings on either side – makeshift screens intended to stop rebel snipers from targeting anyone walking in the square.
A young woman in hijab was standing near the entrance, weeping as she and a male companion talked with the officer in charge of the checkpoint. After a few minutes of conversation that ended on what looked to be a frustrating note, the woman and her friend pulled back, then wandered up and down the street, apparently debating whether to try another tack to convince the officer or just give up and leave.
“I am trapped,” the woman, named Reem Buqaee, told me. She had been given permission to leave Yarmouk three months earlier with her three teenage daughters. The oldest one was pregnant. Owing to malnutrition, she was suffering from anaemia so severe that she was at risk of losing her baby. The other two girls also had medical problems. But leaving the camp had meant splitting the family. The husband of the pregnant woman could not leave the camp, nor could Reem’s husband, or her 16-year-old son. Rebel groups were eager to keep people in the camp, she said, particularly men and boys. Their departure was seen as defection from the opposition cause as well as potentially making it easier for government troops to enter the camp by force and regain control.
Buqaee’s daughter had safely given birth and the other girls had regained their strength, so she wanted to take them back into Yarmouk. “I had to choose between living in a prison under siege but alongside my husband and son, or stay outside Yarmouk separated but free,” she said. On this particular day, she had come to the camp entrance to see whether her request to return had been granted, but the officer told her he had not received orders to let her and her daughters and baby grand-daughter inside. “Our house is only 100 metres from here, just inside the camp. It’s so near but very far,” she said.
The next day, I visited Buqaee at an overcrowded flat in the Dummar suburb of Damascus, where a distant relative had given her and her daughters temporary shelter. A thick atmosphere of fear surrounds any discussion of Yarmouk. This affects everyone from UNRWA officials to Yarmouk residents. People worry that their families will suffer if they publicly attribute blame to the regime or the rebels for the siege, the collapse of ceasefire talks, and the impossibility of escaping. UNRWA officials are concerned about losing the minimal access they have to Yarmouk if they say anything that might be misinterpreted by one side or the other. When I spoke to residents who had left the camp for other parts of Damascus, but who talk regularly with siblings and parents still inside, they refused to be quoted, explaining that people are scared of reprisals from both the regime and the anti-Assad forces inside the camp.
Buqaee, however, described the horrors of the siege without hesitation: women dying in childbirth, infants killed by malnutrition. There was no anger or hysteria in her voice, just a calm recollection of facts. “You couldn’t buy bread. At the worst point a kilo of rice cost 12,000 Syrian pounds (£41), now it is 800 pounds (£2.75) compared to 100 Syrian pounds (34p) in central Damascus. It was 900 pounds (£3.10) for a kilo of tomatoes, compared to 100 here,” Reem recalled. “We had some stocks but when they gave out we used to eat wild plants. We picked and cooked them. In every family there was hepatitis because of a lack of sugar. The water was dirty. People had fevers. Your joints and bones felt stiff. My middle daughter had brucellosis and there was no medication,” she said. In October 2013, in a sign of how bad things had become, the imam of Yarmouk’s largest mosque issued a fatwa that permitted people to eat cats, dogs and donkeys.
The relaxation of the siege in January last year was limited and insecure, she said. UNRWA’s food deliveries were regularly cut short by mortar explosions and sniper fire. No one was sure who began firing or why. She remembered one incident vividly: “It was March 23. I had gone to collect a food parcel and was on the way back when a mortar went off. Twenty-nine people were killed. My daughter’s husband had come to help carry the boxes. He was hit by shrapnel and cannot walk now. It’ll take him another three or four months to get better.”
For most of 2014, both sides were willing to allow some humanitarian supplies to enter the camp on an ad hoc basis, UN officials told me, even if the amount was far below what was needed. Every day, UNRWA would check whether there had been exchanges of fire in Yarmouk. Sometimes the agency’s minivans never left the warehouse in central Damascus, on other occasions, delivery convoys were turned back. “We never say we’ve had access. All we say is that they’ve given us some opportunities to provide aid,” one UN official said.
UNRWA has not yet been able to enter the camp to conduct a needs assessment. Since the graphic scenes of starving masses early last year, the agency developed a more orderly process, with lists of people who are allowed to cross the no man’s land at the edge of the camp once each month to collect food parcels. Each parcel contains five kilograms of rice, five kilograms of sugar, five kilograms of lentils, five litres of oil, five kilograms of powdered milk, one kilogram of halva, one and a half kilograms of pasta and five 200g tins of luncheon meat. This is designed to feed a family of eight people for 10 days. In other parts of Syria where displaced Palestinians are living, UNRWA provides cash so that people can buy food for the rest of the month, but in Yarmouk that has not been not possible.
Providing medical supplies is sensitive, since the Syrian government fears they will go to wounded fighters. Initially it only gave permission for rehydration salts and basic painkillers. UNRWA eventually managed to operate a mobile health clinic at the food distribution point, which provided basic treatments for communicable diseases and other infections, as well as conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. Tests conducted in 2014 on a random sample of patients found that 40% had typhoid.
Education has been dramatically affected by the siege. According to residents inside the camp, all of Yarmouk’s 28 schools have been closed, and volunteer teachers hold informal classes in 10 “safe spaces”, including the basements of mosques. The lack of electricity means children have to do their homework by generators if their parents can afford the fuel for them, or by candlelight. The spotlight that the UNRWA has tried to keep on Yarmouk may have acted as some restraint on government forces – the area has not been bombed as heavily as other rebel-held districts of Damascus. But this is only a crumb of comfort. “Conditions are far worse than Gaza,” said one UN official. “Palestinians always had dignity, hope, resilience. Now after four years of war I see people giving up. They find it hard to accept there are no options”.
The latest attempt to reach a ceasefire and end the siege of Yarmouk was last June, when the armed groups inside the camp and some civilian representatives signed a pact with 13 representatives of the Assad government, which would have seen gunmen leave Yarmouk after the creation of a new security force to defend the camp. The deal was never implemented.
Nidal Bitari now lives in the United States, where he remains in daily contact with friends in Yarmouk by phone and Skype. He lobbied at UN headquarters in New York for western governments to support the June ceasefire agreement, and blames them, along with supporters of Jabhat al Nusra, for letting the deal collapse. “I suppose this initiative went against the wishes of France, UK and USA,” he said, “as their policy is based on supporting the interim government in exile, and they believe such truces give legitimacy to the regime.” Talal Alyan, a Palestinian-American writer and researcher who lives in the US, recently wrote that Jabhat al Nusra controls 60% of the camp, and suggested the group had attempted to ban singing and force women to wear the veil.
Since our conversation, Reem Buqaee has managed to go home to Yarmouk, even though it meant returning to siege conditions. When no response came from the Palestinian authorities who shared control of the camp’s northern entrance with regime forces, she decided to use an unofficial channel. A friend in the air force, one of the pillars of Assad’s regime, persuaded his commander to contact officers at government checkpoints in Beit Sahem, a village to the south of Yarmouk, to let them cross the frontline. Inside the camp, the water supply has still not returned, six months after pipes were damaged by fighting in September 2014. This has forced the residents to rely on untreated groundwater and a single well.
To add to the horror of the siege, the shadow of Isis has fallen across Yarmouk. When the group announced the establishment of a caliphate last year, Bitari said, some Jabhat al Nusra fighters in Yarmouk switched their allegiance and threatened to kill anyone who supported the ceasefire agreement. Isis is not yet in Yarmouk in full force, according to Bitari, but it was in nearby suburbs and had threatened to enter the camp at any time.
Nidal Bitari is gloomy in exile. When it became clear the US was about to strike targets in Syria in September, he coordinated an appeal from activists back home. They feared Obama would attack Isis positions in Yarmouk. “Here in Washington I’m surrounded by people from the Syrian National Coalition [the western-supported opposition] who tell me they want Obama to bomb Damascus. It would be a political more than a military action, aimed at warning Assad that the opposition has powerful friends. I told them it would cause a high number of casualties and there’s no way for Palestinians in Yarmouk to flee,” he said.
The appeal condemned the Syrian government for mounting a brutal siege but said any coalition air strike on Damascus would create an even greater humanitarian disaster. In his view the reimposition of a total siege since early December was a tactic by the Assad regime to drive Yarmouk’s people to despair and have them press the armed groups to accept a truce under the regime’s conditions. It would amount to a surrender like those the government achieved in the city of Homs and the Damascus suburb of Muadhamiya last year. The armed groups would have to give up their weapons and submit to interrogation, with the risk of torture or execution.
In spite of the siege, Bitari feels that in one way Syria’s Palestinians who have escaped abroad may be worse off than those left behind. “We heard much about the Nakba from our parents and grandparents, about their suffering when forced to leave their country, at having lost everything,” he wrote. “They worked hard to build their lives in Syria, and what they built is destroyed. And now we, the third generation, are experiencing this also, of starting from zero in other countries.