Monday,23 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Monday,23 October, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Breaking the silence on Yarmouk

Palestinian and Syrian residents of the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp feel their plight is being ignored by the outside world, writes Mamoon Al-Abbassi

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Palestinian and Syrian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, under siege for over two years by forces loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad, say that the international community is indifferent to their suffering.

Palestinians inside the camp, in particular, are frustrated at how their plight is being ignored by activists and campaigners traditionally known to support the cause of Palestine, including fellow compatriots.

“The international media is already unfair towards us [Palestinians], but at least we had people from around the world exposing Israel’s war crimes on social media and other outlets,” a Palestinian who is a former resident of the camp said. He asked to remain unnamed out of fear that his comments could affect relatives still in the camp.

“But the Palestinians of Yarmouk face three layers of censorship: from the international media, from groups who claim to be supportive of Palestine and from Palestinian officials and activists who also hardly mention us,” he said. “In order to break the siege, you first have to break the silence surrounding it.”

Palestinian refugees took to the streets of the camp ten days ago to protest against the siege. More than 170 people have reportedly died from dehydration, severe malnutrition or disease.

The camp, under siege since December 2012, is home to some 18,000 people who have nowhere else to go. Prior to that, an estimated 160,000 people lived there, before forces loyal to Al-Assad began shelling the camp, destroying much of its infrastructure and making it another casualty of Syria’s civil war.

Like all other areas under Al-Assad’s control, the smallest hint of dissent has not been tolerated. What has compounded the problem in Yarmouk has been that different armed groups inside the camp, which hosts Syrians as well as Palestinians, have had opposing loyalties.

Sources from inside the camp say the main armed groups operating in and around the camp include, on the pro-Al-Assad side, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), viewed as Al-Assad’s enforcers inside the camp, and the Fatah Al-Intifada, made up of Palestinian refugees who formerly lived in Lebanon. The latter are reportedly coordinating militarily with Lebanon’s Hizbullah militants and Syria’s shebbiha militia.

On the other side are Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, made up of Palestinians who hold pro-Muslim Brotherhood views, Al-Uhda Al-Umariya, made of those few Palestinians who have defected from PFLP-GC, supporters of Hamas and Fatah, though not representing the two groups in an official capacity, and supporters of Al-Nusra Front, made up of Palestinians and Syrians and inspired by Al-Qaeda.

There are also supporters of Ahrar Al-Sham, which includes mainly Islamist Syrians who are viewed as “moderate” and are not affiliated with Al-Qaeda or Islamic State (IS), and supporters of the Free Syrian Army, who are secular Syrians, many of them defectors from the regime’s regular army.

Critics accuse Hamas, which has thrown its political support behind the Syrian uprising, of operating through its supporters in the camp, although Al-Assad had earlier accused the military wing of the Palestinian movement of training rebel fighters elsewhere in Syria.

Hamas denies any military involvement anywhere in Syria, maintaining that “though the movement stands by the Syrian people, sympathises with them and supports their legitimate demands, this does not indicate any [military] involvement on our part.”

Syrians loyal to Al-Assad dispute this. “Syrians [who support Al-Assad] will never forget the betrayal of Hamas. We gave them weapons to use against the Israelis, but they turned those guns on us,” said Raghad Ghesen, a London-based Syrian journalist.

Humanitarian crisis: Last year, the rights group Amnesty International accused the Syrian government of “using the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war,” adding that the “siege of Yarmouk amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population.”

UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) spokesman Chris Gunness recently requested the “relevant authorities to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population” in Yarmouk. He said the international body “remains deeply concerned that no successful humanitarian distributions have taken place since 6 December.”

The Palestinian League for Human Rights in Syria recently produced a report on the crisis. Mahmoud Nassar, a legal activist inside the camp, wrote: “Cutting the water supply [forces] residents to leave for surrounding areas on foot to collect small amounts of drinking water, [and] the severe lack of water suitable for daily needs such as personal hygiene leads to the spread of disease, especially among children.

“The siege also affects the agricultural projects that some organisations are carrying out to ease the food deficiency,” he added.

Despite the gruesome effects of the siege, residents of Yarmouk are finding ways to cope. “Since the electricity is cut off, we have been recharging our laptops and phones by generating power by reversing the dynamos on electric bikes,” said Rami Al-Sayed, a Syrian media activist critical of Al-Assad but not affiliated with any armed group.

“We are cooking on coal and burning our furniture for heat,” said Al-Sayed. “But this can’t go on forever. Those who were able to leave have fled the country, but the rest of us have to deal with regime snipers, shortages of medicine and the sky-high food prices of the regime’s black market merchants.”

Living conditions have also been hard for Palestinian refugees who have fled the camp and are now living in Damascus. “It is not just those inside the camp who are suffering. The cost of living for us [Palestinians outside the camp] is very high, and rents are unaffordable,” Mohamed, a Palestinian activist who had left the camp, said.

Mohamed said that some food is being smuggled into the camp, but at inflated prices. “Syrian merchants from nearby areas are abusing the situation inside the camp to make profit for themselves,” he said, adding that many Palestinians in the camp are blaming their own leaderships for not agreeing on a common strategy to end the crisis.

“People used to have dreams of one day returning to their original homes in Palestine. But today most people are thinking of how to go to somewhere safe, like Europe,” Mohamed said.

Meanwhile, aside from a handful of human rights reports the siege has continued largely unnoticed. “While the Syrian regime made global headlines with its use of chemical weapons, its use of starvation has largely slipped under the radar, even though it is far more pervasive,” American journalist Shane Bauer wrote in an article entitled “The Hunger Game” for Mother Jones.

Palestinian officials have also been complicit in the silence. “What makes [this crisis] stand out is the lack of public reaction many Palestinians have had to the catastrophe. There has been a decidedly muted response and little coverage of the slaughter of this segment of Palestinians,” wrote Palestinian-American commentator Talal Alyan for the US-based website Huffington Post.

“The siege of Yarmouk, the issue of who is at fault, boils down to one essential point: the practice of collective punishment. Either one opposes this cruel practice, whether in Gaza or Yarmouk, or one doesn’t,” he added.

 “Al-Assad’s regime relies heavily on the idea of Palestine in its propaganda,” argues Alyan. “The very least that Palestinians outside Syria can do is publically and continuously deny the Syrian regime the use of Palestine as a shield in the slaughter of Palestinians.”

His view is shared by other observers. “Critics have pointed out that the Syrian regime justifies the brutal siege on Yarmouk with many of the same excuses Israel has used to justify its illegal siege on Gaza,” wrote Ben Norton, a freelance writer and journalist, in an article published on Mondoweiss.net.

“Paralleling Israeli officials’ arguments about Hamas and Gaza, Al-Assad characterises Yarmouk as a hotbed for terrorists who oppose his rule and argues that it is therefore justified to bomb, shell and starve civilian areas in order to uproot such a presence,” he added.

“One of the principal ways that Al-Assad has tried to justify his rule is with claims that he, unlike the Arab countries surrounding Syria, supports the Palestinian people. Many Palestinians in Yarmouk, nevertheless, have found such a claim to ring hollow and to be unsubstantiated.”

Sources in the camp confirmed that the situation was less than favourable for the Palestinians. “The regime expects Palestinians in the camp to show more loyalty [towards Al-Assad]. If a Palestinian is suspected of anything wrong [from the regime’s perspective], then his punishment will be that much more severe,” Al-Sayed said.

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