Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1181, (23 - 29 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

While Yarmouk starves

The Palestinians of the Yarmouk refugee camp are being crushed between the opposing sides in the Syrian civil war, writes Ahmed Barqawi in Amman

Al-Ahram Weekly

Their ambivalent stance was not enough, for no middle ground is safe in the Syrian war. There is no middle ground to be found there anyway. And the worst thing that could happen to the Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp would be to be impartial at a time when the Arab world is so thoroughly drenched in former US president George W. Bush’s woebegone doctrine of “you’re either with us or against us,” a time when divisions reign supreme and self-imposed partitions are the order of the day. The Palestinians were asked to choose a side and to choose it quickly. Either the hammer or the anvil, they were told, only to be crushed between them.
The strategic location of the camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus meant that its residents were no longer spoilt with the luxury of safe choices, a deadly case of damned if you do and even more damned if you don’t. It also meant that the Palestinian refugees inside the camp were reduced to nothing more than a small “inconvenience” in the ever onward pursuit of military supremacy on the part of both sides in the conflict, a mere banal obstacle to be got around when military commanders unfurl their maps and plot their next counter-attack. It always is a counter-attack, with plenty of “collateral damage” left in its wake.
The Islamist armed groups in the country’s opposition saw the camp as the Syrian government’s Achilles heel, a prize catch in their quest to conquer Damascus and the perfect springboard for their intended jihad against the regime’s main stronghold. This practically put a target on the camp’s back, turning its entire refugee population into human shields held hostage to these groups’ military whims. Not that this would have been enough to deter the Syrian government, since this in turn saw the camp as a potential breach in the security belt around the capital and one that needed to be fixed by military means.
The armed opposition’s all-guns-blazing infiltration into Yarmouk in late 2012, subsequently taking control of the camp, plunged its Palestinian refugees headfirst into the throes of the Syrian war, transforming the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria into “hostile territory” for the Syrian armed forces. It didn’t help matters that the Palestinian factions inside the camp took opposing sides in the Syrian war, with Hamas (or the remnants of it) siding with the Islamist opposition fighters on ideological and sectarian grounds and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) siding with the regime. As a result, the camp became a location for Islamist militants and anti-government dissidents to wage holy war against Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
For the Al-Nusra Front and other Islamist militias, taking control of the camp was primarily a matter of scoring territorial advances against the “infidel” regime. It constituted the closest they would manage to get to Damascus, but their pyrrhic victory placed the camp itself in a kind of militaristic death-grip, in which foreign-backed insurgents have been wreaking havoc inside it, including looting, the arbitrary seizure of property and the taking of human shields, and the Syrian army has been giving the area the full military-zone treatment. It has imposed a fully-fledged state of siege on most parts of the camp and particularly on its northern entrance which connects directly to Damascus.
Today, residents of the Yarmouk camp find themselves caught in the midst of a scorched-earth power struggle between the two warring parties, with minimal to zero regard being paid to the civilians caught in the crossfire, their lives reduced to eating grass, leaves and animal feed.
Stripped of their humanity and now almost invisible to the outside world, the Palestinian refugees in the camp are now either lost in the tall grass of callous military calculations or forgotten in the midst of the reshuffled priorities of the bickering Palestinian factions. All the while they have been facing death in its most deplorable form of starvation.
Forty-six people have so far died of hunger, dehydration and malnutrition in the Yarmouk camp, and this number is set to rise, especially as a result of the trigger-happy insurgents inside the camp preventing aid convoys from advancing and stonewalling attempts at delivering much-needed humanitarian aid and supplies to the malnourished population.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) spokesman, Chris Gunnes, the latest PLO/UNRWA joint relief convoy could not make its way through to the camp after a bulldozer provided by the Syrian authorities to clear the road was targeted by direct gunfire, followed by a mortar shell landing close to the UNRWA trucks forcing them to retreat.
Though Gunnes’s statement did not assign blame for the assault, Ahmed Al-Majdalani, the Palestinian minister of labour and head of the PLO delegation in Syria, accused the Islamist rebels controlling the camp of opening fire on the six-truck relief effort, in this way torpedoing the whole mission. This had particularly been the case, he said since the attack had occurred near the southern entrance of the camp over which Syrian authorities had minimal control and where the insurgents enjoyed the upper hand as a result of their extensive forces on the ground.
In a press conference held last week in Damascus, Al-Majdalani said that “terrorist militias are committing war crimes by occupying the camp and hindering the planned evacuation of the sick, children and old people by targeting gathering points with live ammunition.”
Whether Al-Majdalani was telling the truth, or whether he was simply engaging in politicised finger-pointing, the fact remains that while the civilian population has been suffering from hunger, thirst and dwindling medical supplies, the militants inside the camp appear to have been largely unaffected by the siege. Instead, these groups seem to be well-armed, enabling them to retain full control of most of the camp despite the ongoing siege, and on multiple occasions they have even instigated clashes with the Syrian army. This begs the question of what is preventing these militants from using their own supply routes and ammunition channels to soften the impact of the regime-imposed siege on the civilian population, bearing in mind that the areas bordering Yarmouk at its southern entrance are controlled by the rebels themselves.
Accounts and appeals coming from the residents inside the camp through social-media sites paint an even grimmer picture of what is going on. According to these accounts, the rebels have been running amok inside the camp, monopolising food and other basic commodities to finance their jihad against the Syrian regime and confiscating stolen property at gunpoint. Meanwhile, the ever-present sniper fire has been preventing people from exiting the camp. The Syrian regime’s siege on the outer periphery of the camp has thus been compounded by another siege imposed from within, courtesy of the foreign-backed insurgents.
Many of the consequences of embroiling the Yarmouk camp in the Syrian civil war must be laid at the foreign-backed groups’ door, these having made a living out of imposing similar (if not more brutal) blockades on entire civilian areas of the country. The Shia villages of Nubl and Al-Zahraa have been under crippling siege from the armed opposition for more than a year-and-a-half now, for example, though this has been largely ignored by the media. Turning the camp into a free-fire zone and a forward base for anti-government operations has brought nothing but agony not only for the Palestinian refugees but also for the Syrians, since the suffering in the Yarmouk camp is a miniature version of the deluge that has been sweeping the country for three years now. The minute the foreign financing of the war in Syria stops, the sea of innocent blood will subside.
However, this should not absolve the Syrian government of responsibility for what is happening, since for the regime the slightest security concern or military calculation outweighs the value of a human life ten-fold. When negotiations on the temporary opening of humanitarian routes into the camp seem like exercises in futility and something that is next to impossible to achieve, this is a profound indictment of all the parties involved in the war.
Both sides have track records of committing war crimes, both sides endorse blockades as a matter of course, and both sides are content with the status quo in the camp. But this is a situation that has been costing the lives of Palestinian refugees on a daily basis, many of them dying as a result of thirst or malnutrition. It is a situation that has transformed basic food and drinkable water into unattainable luxuries and one that has turned the camp’s suffering into a mere political scoring board for the rival Palestinian factions and their regional patrons to capitalise on tragedy.

Barqawi is a Jordanian writer and columnist based in Amman.

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