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A Formula for Survival in Damascus

by FRANKLIN LAMB

Western side of Yarmouk Camp, Damascus

For more than a year Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, one of nine in Syria, has been a war zone between supporters of the Syria government and those seeking its overthrow. But the number of camp pre-crisis residents actively engaged in fighting on either side is negligible according to Dr.  Hamed Mouad author of the first book on Yarmouk camp history and sociology and himself with many of his relatives, camp residents until they had to flee Yarmouk eight months ago. Yarmouk residents overwhelmingly refused to join either side despite great pressure put on them from both sides to “liberate” Yarmouk from the other side.  They paid a big price for insisting on neutrality and non-involvement.

All “legal” entrances of the Yarmouk camp/neighborhood are blocked by the Syrian army or rebel gunmen.  But along the western side it was possible to enter some parts of the camp aided by a friendly teenager. Still, snipers from both the government and rebels are on many rooftops.

Approximately only 20% of the 170,000 who lived in Yarmouk pre-crisis have remained with a majority of those seeking housing outside in Damascus suburbs. Many parts of the camp are, now largely a vast deserted wasteland, with most of those remaining residents having little or no water, electricity, or safe camp infrastructure or shops of any sort. The Syrian government continues to allow free medical aid at public health facilities and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Society (SARCS) helps many with food parcels.

Palestinians interviewed inside the western area of Yarmouk camp explain that the only reason there is anyone still in Yarmouk at all, is that those remaining have no other option and have chosen to risk their lives daily—a sort of Russian roulette fate with the snipers and mortars, to remain in what is left of their homes or camp-out near piles of rubble that were their homes.  Others try to survive outside the camp squatting on blankets, flattened cardboard boxes or plastic tarps in schools and Mosques, some fortunate families having a small gas burner to cook with.  Damascus experiences very high summer temperatures  that far exceed those in Beirut and Saida Lebanon, where many of the 75,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have fled. Others who had to flee Yarmouk can be seen almost anywhere in Syria’s capitol, among the more than one million refugees who fled into Damascus from other areas of the Syrian Arab Republic over the past nearly 29 months. A few desperate refugees drape some blankets in alleyways hoping the authorities will not roust them, or worse, someone rob or kidnap them. Kidnapping has become a significant business in Damascus.

Some of the Damascus cops, on humanitarian grounds, allow refugees, of whom many are Roma Gypsies since their main neighborhood was destroyed, to sleep in a few of the city’s more inconspicuous smaller playgrounds or green spaces.  Not however, in the main parks which are probably the most beautiful and manicured, even during the current fighting, than in any Arab country in the Middle East. Camping in most of these parks is not allowed. Yet, when a mortar of car bomb demolishes part of a street some of the residents do come into the central parks, reminding this observer of how many times since the Lebanese civil war and Israeli aggressions,  Beirut’s  Saniyeh Gardens in Hamra has been crowded with refugees living rough.

In less than a month, classes will start in Syria and so schools will be mainly unavailable to refugees desperately scrounging for shelter. Some Palestinians, like their Syrian neighbors, are still fleeing to Lebanon but the government has recently raised the exit fee at the Masnaa border crossing from 550 Syrian pounds to 1,100 (roughly $6) per person.  Not a big bite for most foreigners but often a serious chunk from the meager family savings of Syrians and Palestinians. Often with several children, it becomes an unaffordable price to pay for trying to postpone death.

It’s awkward to generalize, but many residents of Damascus, including some of the remaining Palestinians, express an opinion that the violence will continue to subside a bit as government forces continue pushing rebels forces further away from the city center. This appears to be the case with the completely exhausted and numbed population of Syria, more than 500,000 of whom have come from other areas of Syria to Damascus over the past 28 months trying to survive. This attitude is expressed, seemingly with some hope, despite that fact that the public here is completely exhausted, horrified at what has become of their country, pessimistic about the future of their beloved Syria as well as its chances to remain intact. Most here, having suffered  incalculable loses, most tragically in terms of killed loved ones, but also material loss of livelihoods, jobs, and businesses,  without much prospect for major recovery anytime soon, nonetheless exhibit a sense that life may soon improve.  Mazin, the driver for Al Alam TV explained to this observer the other night: “ It may seemed strange, but we Damascenes hear more shelling these days as  government forces push rebels out of some of the  suburbs, but we also feel more secure despite more shelling because the rebels are being driven back away the our suburbs.  But there is a long way to go.”

When asking for some examples of  recent evidence that the ‘situation’ may be improving this observer was presented illustrations such as  Ali Haidar, Syria’s Minister for National Reconciliation being seen frequently in public telling citizens that plans are being put into place for the return of the Syrian and Palestinian refugees.  Another example that some here see as movement in a positive direction,  was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s visit on 8/1/13 to the town of Daraya outside Damascus. Daraya was for more than a year a rebel bastion and is now mainly under government control. It was the Syrian Presidents first such public trip since his 3/12/12 visit to Baba Amr in central Homs, which yesterday was the site of a huge explosion at a government weapons depot that killed approximately 50 people.  Assad gave a defiant speech pledging victory over  forces seeking to topple Syria’s government and he seems to have buoyed some here as he chatted with soldiers and expressed Syria’s gratitude for its military’s performance. This kind of connecting with the general population, replicated by an increasing number of Syrian officials being seen more these days in public outside their heavily protected offices. If this more openness does not lift spirits much, they do appear to offer some hope for ending the civil war.

As the pendulum swings, at least for now, in favor of the current regime, Syrian and Palestinian friends and acquaintances express dismay as more specifics are becoming apparent with respect to what they may face, should the persistent  more extreme Islamist, Salafist and Wahabists elements take over and set up “the State” as in ‘Salafist caliphate.’

Two brief examples of what citizens here are talking, and even derisively joking, about in conversations during post-fasting Iftar meals and outings at local cafes, as they observe the ever feuding “rebel ranks.” Just this week, a sharia committee in the rebel-held region of secular Aleppo banned the baking or eating of croissants, despite shortages of bread. The reason given is because, according to the views of some Salafist-Wahabist “scholars”, the French croissants are secret symbols of colonial oppression. The idea of Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, both affiliated with al-Qaeda, seems to be that because Syria is a former French colony, this symbol of Frenchness is obviously connected with imperialism because the pastry’s crescent shape celebrates European victory over Muslims. Conspiracy theorists abound everywhere, so it seems.

Increasingly, various groups are issuing fatwas to assure that the planned new order quickly dismantles the current secular Syrian society and the sooner the better. Over the past several months a raft load of Fatwa’s which apparently any wannebe Islamic “scholar” can issue when in the mood, includes importing wholesale some of the Saudi Arabian style of life with some Fatwa’s even making the KSA appear sort of moderate.

Within the past few months, Rebel-held regions of Aleppo are increasingly dominated by extremist elements, further marginalizing more moderate rebel groups and putting many Syrians at the groups’ mercy. The Islamic law council of Aleppo’s Fardous neighborhood recently issued a fatwa, banning all women, not only Muslims, from wearing “immodest” dress when includes being too tight as well as forbidding cosmetics. Another Fatwa decrees a one year jail sentence for anyone observed failing to fast during the month of Ramadan, Muslim or not.

Against this decidedly dismal backdrop, the PLO leadership in Ramallah is reaching out to the Palestinians in Syria as well as to the Syrian government, with a proposed solution to the current Palestinian refugee crisis that continues to worsen. According to Palestinian factions in Damascus, one of which presented a copy of the ‘secret plan” to this observer, a four-member delegation was sent to Damascus at the end of July from the PA HQ in Ramallah. The envoys presented to the 14 Palestinian factions here and to the Syrian government a two-step initiative to end fighting in Yarmouk camp

The proposal has, on good authority, been approved by the Syrian government with a decision expected from the PLO groups during the first half of August. The PLO declaration, meant to build on Mahmoud Abass’ July visit to Lebanon reads essentially as follows:

“Based on the principled position declared by the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership regarding all the internal developments taking place in the Arab countries – particularly the crisis in Syria – which is not to interfere in the internal affairs of these countries, and prevent the involvement of either the Palestinians or their camps in these struggles, by maintaining their neutrality and preserving the camps as secure environments for their Palestinian and Syrian residents, empty of both weapons and fighters, in order to keep the Palestinian struggle directed against our primary enemy, the Israeli occupation.

Mindful of the above, and after the developments which led to the dispersal of hundreds of thousands of our people in the camps, which were then turned into insecure and dangerous zones, we the factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, propose the following initiative, with the hope that in cooperation with all those concerned, we can work together to achieve the following:

First, based on our principled position of positive neutrality and keeping the Palestinians and their camps out of the confrontations in Syria, we propose that all the Palestinian camps – and Yarmouk camp in particular – be secure and safe areas, free of weapons and fighters, by taking the following steps:

– End all public display of weapons and fighters, with guarantees to those who wish to do so.

– Avoid the use of the camps as areas of confrontation and cease all forms of fighting, including sniping and shelling.

– Allow the free movement of people, food, medical supplies and vehicles in and out of the camp, which will encourage the return of the displaced to their homes.

– Restore services, including electricity, water, telecommunications, schools, and hospitals.

– Provide amnesty to all those camp residents who have been detained if their involvement in the fighting cannot be confirmed.

Second, follow up and coordinate efforts in order to execute the steps outlined in the proposal by eliminating all obstacles, providing all that is required for its success.

A fine sounding and presumably well-meaning initiative.  But one that has been met with grave doubts among Palestinians here including camp popular committees.  This PLO plan is considered to be unworkable since some groups that are even more extremist than al-Qaeda have started moving families of their members and community into Yarmouk pledging to stay despite what any other rebels groups decide, reminding one of the fate of Nahr al Bared camp near Tripoli, Lebanon.

The sense among Palestinians here with whom this observer has discuss the PLO proposal,  is overwhelmingly that there can be no progress with respect to returning Palestinian refugees to their homes in Yarmouk until a political solution is reached among all the major parties to the Syrian Crisis.  Some predict that may take decades.

Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and can be reached c/o fplamb@gmail.com

Franklin Lamb volunteers with the Lebanon, France, and USA based Meals for Syrian Refugee Children Lebanon (MSRCL) which seeks to provide hot nutritional meals to Syrian and other refugee children in Lebanon. http://mealsforsyrianrefugeechildrenlebanon.com. He is reachable c/o fplamb@gmail.com.

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