Screen grab from a video showing a young man crying of despair in the Yarmouk camp.
For several months now, the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, in southern Damascus, has been blockaded by the Syrian regime in an attempt to root out rebel groups that have made it their base. This has left the refugees living there caught between the two sides and cut off from the rest of the world. Today, they’re in dire need of food and basic supplies.
The camp’s siege began ten months ago as part of a vast military operation intended to recapture the southern suburbs of Syria’s capital. In the past few months, the army has successfully taken control of several suburbs around Yarmouk, enabling it to choke the camp.
Very little information leaks out from the camp, which residents can no longer leave. Communications links are frequently shut off. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group based in London, believes that 46 people have died there in recent months; however, the UN has only confirmed 15 deaths. These are reportedly due mainly to the lack of food, but also to the camp’s catastrophic sanitary conditions. In addition, many children living there suffer from diseases linked to malnutrition, according to the UN.
A UN humanitarian team attempted to bring food rations and polio vaccines to the camp on Wednesday, but a shootout prevented the convoy from reaching its destination. The Syrian regime and the rebels based at the camp blame each other for this incident.
The Yarmouk camp, created in 1957, is the biggest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, covering 2 square kilometres. Before the start of the Syrian conflict, it was home to more than 148,000 refugees, according to the UN, but thousands have left since then. It is not exclusively home to Palestinians: Syrians of modest means also live there.
In this video, a young man in Yarmouk explains: "We can no longer afford a kilo of rice or wheat! We have nothing to do with all this violence, we just want food and water! We want peace in our camp! We have nothing to do with this conflict, I swear! What did I do to deserve not seeing my father for a year?" Video posted online by the Sarmad Network on January 14.
"Inside the camp, a kilo of rice costs 36 euros"
Shamel is a member of the Sham News Network, an opposition group that relays news and videos of the conflict. Last month, he fled from Hajar Al-Aswad, a neighbourhood located next to the Yarmouk camp. He stays in regular contact with camp residents.
In November 2012, the army surrounded the Yarmouk camp. They set up several roadblocks at its entrance to stop rebels from going in and out. Civilians who ventured out of the camp to find food were not allowed to return with a ration exceeding one day’s worth of food. The goal was to make sure residents wouldn’t stock up on food and share it with the rebels.At the time, camp residents who had the means to flee to Jordan or Lebanon did so [Editor’s Note: about 100,000 fled in December 2012]. But those who didn’t have enough money or didn’t have any relatives outside the camp stayed put. Today, they live in an open-air prison.During these ten months of blockade, nobody has been authorised to go into the camp. Its residents are lacking in everything: food, basic supplies… The videos showing the camp that are shared on the Internet are sent by activists living in the camp who use a satellite connection that was installed before the blockade began.Food is a rare commodity, and it’s sold at exorbitant prices on the black market. A kilo of rice costs the equivalent of 0,80 euros anywhere else in Syria, but inside the camp, it costs 36 euros! Food is smuggled in by Palestinians close to the PFLP-GC [Editor’s Note: the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command is an armed group financed by the Syrian regime. The PFLP-GC was opposed to rebels coming into the camp.] They bribe the soldiers working the blockades in order to bring food in. There’s a lot of money to be made in this business.
"The Yarmouk camp is in a strategic location"
Maher Ayoub is a Palestinian journalist. He used to live in the Yarmouk camp, until he fled in 2012.
The Yarmouk camp is a victim of its geographic location. It is located at the southern entrance to Damascus, in the suburbs closest to the centre of the capital [just 8 kilometres south of downtown Damascus]. Therefore it’s a strategic area that the regime needs to control to block rebels from entering the capital.The army controls the south of Damascus itself, and, thanks to recent military operations, it is also present south of the Yarmouk camp. In other words, it surrounds the camp. The regime will not lift its blockade until it has destroyed the rebels.Just like in Iraq, Palestinian refugees are once again collateral victims of the conflict.
Red marks the positions of the Syrian army south of Damascus and south of its southern suburbs. The Yarmouk camp is located in the middle.