Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Unravelling the spin on Yarmouk

Residents of the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp are telling a very different story about the recent violence than the one appearing in the mainstream media, writes Linah Alsaafin

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the Islamic State (IS) group entered the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, an urban neighbourhood in southern Damascus, last week, it was thrust back into the media spotlight.

Caught between the rockets of Syrian government forces and violent militants who have seized territory in northern Syria and Iraq, factions inside Yarmouk, chiefly the Palestinian group Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis, fought fierce gun battles with IS.

With concern over the fate of the camp growing, the PLO sent a delegation from the West Bank to Syria to discuss the plight of the refugees with Syrian authorities. An initial statement from PLO official Ahmed Majdalani said that Palestinian factions had agreed to cooperate with Syrian government forces inside the camp to counter IS.

However, another statement released shortly afterwards by the PLO leadership in Ramallah contradicted this, saying that they refused to be drawn into military actions. Saeb Erekat, the PLO’s chief negotiator, supported the move and stressed that Palestinian factions within Yarmouk had refrained from meddling in “a conflict that isn’t theirs.”

Residents of Yarmouk, however, offer a very different version of events. “Palestinian militias allied to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command [PFLP-GC], are the ones who dragged the camp into the Syrian conflict,” 30-year-old journalist Ahmed, a camp resident, said last week.

“Before that the camp was a safe haven, a neutral zone for people in the areas around it,” Ahmed said. “These militias, led by PFLP-GC’s Ahmed Jibril, are the ones who began kidnapping and arresting activists within and around the camp and handing them over to the regime.”

Anwar Abdul Hadi, a PLO official based in Damascus, said on Sunday that 2,000 people were evacuated from the camp to the capital under the protection of the Syrian army. “Around 400 families managed to leave the camp on Friday and Saturday via two secure roads to the Zahira district which is under army control,” he said, adding that most were taken to government shelters and hospitals in Damascus.

Shaml Media, a Palestinian media network in Syria, was the first to contest the PLO’s claims, tweeting that only 180 people had left Yarmouk. Sources within the camp who spoke to various humanitarian organisations said that approximately 200 people had left on the day the PLO issued its statement.

“They weren’t evacuated,” Ahmed said. “I can confirm that the regime forces did not offer a safe passage for the ‘evacuation’ of the refugees. Rather, the refugees took refuge outside the camp.”

Since IS entered Yarmouk over a week ago, 4,000 residents have fled to nearby neighbourhoods in the besieged southern Damascus area of Babila, Yalda and Beit Sahm.

Salim Salamah, based in Sweden and head of the Palestine League for Human Rights-Syria, acknowledged that there was confusion surrounding the news of the residents fleeing.

Said Salamah, “We need to distinguish between two things: displacement of the people from the camp within southern Damascus and displacement of the people from the camp to the outside, who are now in regime-controlled Damascus.”

Ahmed said that entrances on the northern side of Yarmouk had been sealed off by government forces. The few roads to the south lead to neighbourhoods controlled by armed opposition factions, most of which have signed truces with the Syrian government. Before the war, the two-square-km area known as Yarmouk was home to 160,000 people. Only 14,000 people are believed to still be there.

It remains unclear as to how the 200 residents managed to make it outside southern Damascus to the government-controlled part of the capital. “No one goes to the regime-controlled entrances,” Ahmed said.

“It’s not just checkpoints they’ve erected — it’s an entire battleground, with snipers ready to shoot at anything moving.” He added, “Most of the people who managed to leave for Yalda and Babila are now living in schools or in the streets.”

 “The roads are accessible as long as there is no aerial bombardment,” said Salamah. “Of the people who fled since IS invaded the camp, 2,500 from Yarmouk are now in Yalda, 1,000 in Babila and 500 in Beit Sahm.”

Anger at the PLO has risen in the camp, especially since the announcement that Palestinian officials would be meeting with authorities who residents see as responsible for the camp’s continued blockade.

“We have been under siege for years, and all the humanitarian aid is delivered to Beit Sahm and Babila,” said one camp resident. “We thank Ahmed Majdalani for the presents he has given us in the past few days,” he added sarcastically, referring to the bombs that Syrian military planes have dropped on the camp.

Fawzi Hameed, head of a civil society organisation in Yarmouk, said that a military solution would only bring more devastation. “We demand that the PLO and those in Ramallah find a solution to get us out of this situation. We stress that the entry of the military will bring about further death and destruction and is not the solution,” he said.

Analysts say that the renewed attention that Yarmouk is now under is masking the complicity of both pro- and anti-government factions that have contributed to its demise.

“Everyone is trying to profit from the camp’s suffering,” Ahmed said. “They all want to turn Yarmouk into another Kobane in order to achieve their victories on the backs of the flesh of civilians,” he added, referring to the Kurdish city that received major media attention after IS overran it and the US-led military coalition started a bombing campaign against the militants.

Speaking through Skype, Ahmed’s solemn voice halted a few times as the roar of a Syrian military plane passing overhead interrupted the conversation. After a couple of loud booms, he apologised and said he would call back as he needed to move to the ground floor of the house he was in.

“One thing we have to be mindful of is that the presence of Islamic State in Yarmouk allows other sides — the opposition factions and the regime alike —to exploit the media in a favourable way,” he said.

Rival opposition factions have issued statements regarding their role in fighting IS alongside Aknaf Beit Al-Maqdis.

“If Jaish Al-Islam [a Saudi-backed faction led by Zahran Alloush operating in eastern Ghouta] wanted to fight IS they could have entered from Hajr Al-Aswad and attacked them from behind,” Ahmed said.

“There are limited battles on the outskirts, but they did not enter the camp. Their actions are all for the media. Ahrar Al-Sham did not get involved either.”

Meanwhile, the media has turned a blind eye to the role of government forces in starving Yarmouk’s residents while reporting extensively on the army’s alleged offer to enter the camp to repel IS.

Yarmouk residents maintain that the biggest threat they face is from the Syrian military air strikes on the camp. “Media sources have reported that there are massacres and mass beheadings going on in Yarmouk,” said Abu Ahmed Huwari, secretary-general of the Palestinian National Body for the Yarmouk Camp, adding out that this has caused families previously displaced from the camp to panic.

“We in Yarmouk assert that there is no truth to these reports, and we confirm as civil society organisations that there are air strikes going on that are killing civilians. We will remain in the camp in order to maintain a dignified life and to ensure the return of our families,” he declared.

“We will not leave the camp, despite the barrel bombs and the gun battles. We will only leave if we can go back to our land in Palestine. For now we demand safe passage so that food and medical supplies can enter the camp.”

Ahmed dismissed claims of an IS takeover of the camp. “Here I am talking to you and smoking,” he said. “I can go down to the store in the street and buy a pack of cigarettes, and I won’t be beheaded by IS because I am not living in their ‘state.’”

He added, “They haven’t imposed their rule and declared Yarmouk part of their caliphate. Their presence should not be confused with controlling the camp.

 “We’ve been talking for a couple of hours now,” he continued. “Have you heard me at any point say I must hide because a member of IS has just passed by? The air strikes remain the biggest danger to civilians.”

The bombings target residential areas as it is too risky to target the flashpoints where opposition groups are located, in close proximity to government forces.

 “More than 30 barrel bombs have targeted the camp in the last nine days,” Salim Salamah said. “On Wednesday night 16 barrel bombs fell on the camp, including one that targeted the Palestine Hospital. These aerial bombardments are extremely destructive and are in no way comparable to the ground invasion of IS.

“If medical and food supplies don’t enter the camp within the next 48 hours, the result will be beyond a tragedy,” he said.

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