Yarmouk Camp, Damascus
This past week, on May 6th, Syria commemorated its national holiday known as Martyr’s Day. This year being the 99th anniversary of the execution of 21 Syrian nationalists, betrayed by retreating Beirut based French officials who were supposedly their allies.
The slaughter took place at Marjeh Square in downtown Damascus for alleged anti-Turkish activities. It was ordered by one Jamal Pasha, also known as “Al Jazzar” (‘The Butcher’) who at the time was the Ottoman, Turkey,“Vilayet” of ‘Greater Syria’. The latter term having been coined to designate the approximate area included in present-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and still Zionist-occupied Palestine, which was a key part of the 1301-1918 Ottoman Empire.
President Bashar Assad, despite rebel social media claims this week that he had been assassinated, appeared well and relaxed at a nearby school amidst throngs of chanting and obviously surprised supporters. In his first remarks since rebels seized Jisr al-Shughour, and the city of Idlib as well as and the Qarmid military base last week, Syria’s President argued to the crowd that “wars involved thousands of battles with ebb and flows, gains and losses, and ups and downs. Everything fluctuates except one thing, which is faith in the soldier and his belief in ultimate victory. So when setbacks occur, it is our duty as a society to boost the morale of the soldier and not wait for him to raise ours.” He added that “Psychological defeat is the final defeat and we are not worried.”
Martyrs’ Day in occupied Palestine, named after Ahmad Musa, who, according to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, was the first martyr to fall in the “Palestinian Revolution” in 1965, is also commemorated in Syria’s 13 Palestinian camps, some now partially destroyed. This year, given all the displacements of Yarmouk residents and continuing carnage and siege of the estimated 8-15,000 still trapped, an additional joint Syrian-Palestinian Martyr’s manifestation is scheduled for 5/8/2015 at 1 p.m. on the north side of Yarmouk camp. An American delegation, which on 5/7/15 was briefed at length on the current humanitarian and military situation by Syrian army and Palestinian commanders just inside the camp, will attend.
The “Return to Yarmouk” event is being organized by former Yarmouk residents from a beat-up shredded UNHCR tent across the street from the North-side entrance to Yarmouk. The Martyr’s Day event will have the theme “Return to Yarmouk” and will launched a campaign to pressure all the parties to finally achieve, after half a dozen failed attempts over the past nearly two years, enough Musalaha (‘reconciliation’) to acheive a credible ceasefire, allow in humanitarian aid, security and the return of those who since December of 2012 fled for their lives. Thousands of former Yarmouk residents currently exist wherever they can find shelter on the edge of Yarmouk while waiting for a chance to return to what is left of their neighborhood and homes.
There are many conflicting reports these days about current conditions deep inside Yarmouk. Based on briefings this week as well as crossed-checked data, the following tentative ‘snapshot’ comes into focus.
Parts of 4-5 thousand Yarmouk families are still inside for a total estimated current population of between 8 to 15,000 persons, mainly Palestinian but also some Syrian. Most are trapped or being used a human shields. But there are a few who have decided to remain with family members who are fighters in various militia. UNWRA uses the figure 18,000 including 3.500 children still trapped inside and in dire need of humanitarian aid. As of March 2011, according to UNWRA, Palestinians living in Syria numbered some 581,000 – one third of whom had been living in the Yarmouk camp.
As confirmed by other eye-witnesses, including Nour Samaha, the northern section of Yarmouk camp is now under the control of the PFLP-GC, while the Syrian army and the National Defense Force, a government-funded militia, surround the western and northern outskirts. Practically all the rest of the camp is under the control of al-Nusra Front, the Islamic State, and other opposition groups.
Da’ish (ISIS) and Jabhat al Nusra have now joined ranks for mutual benefits as we are seeing in some other parts of Syria. Contrary to some media reports ISIS has not abandoned or retreated from Yarmouk but on the contrary they are actively recruiting, offering approximately $ 400 monthly salaries, free cigarettes (despite their claimed Koranic based rejection of the disgusting habit) and a Kalashnikov or similar weapon.
Contrary to some media reports, the formerly pro-Hamas Palestinian militia Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis, which has been solely active in Yarmouk camp has not disbanded. Rather, Aknaf has split its ranks. Approximately 150 of its fighters have joined the Da’ish-Nusra collaboration inside the camp with roughly the same number joining pro-government forces such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), which continues, despite some rumors, to be headed by pro-Syrian, Ahmed Jibril.
The current known allies of Aknaf Bait al-Maqdis include Jaysh al-Islam, Jaysh al-Ababil, Liwa Sham al-Rasul, and Da’ish (ISIS). Its enemies include the Syrian army, Hezbollah, National Defense Force, and the PFLP_GC and al-Nurse Front. But some alliances are shifting. This according to the political and military commander of the PFLP-GC and army sources who requested they not be named.
Rebels currently control between 50-75 percent of the camp according to army and PFLP-GC briefings conducted on 5/7/15. Officers explained to this observer and his colleagues that a laboriously crafted cease-fire was in place and set to be implemented by the end of March 2015, when suddenly Daesh and Nusra launched their attack on the camp, scuttling the efforts of many including most Palestinian factions.
Increasingly the battles inside Yarmouk are being wages from tunnels. Since 1 April, when Da’ish invaded Yamouk, and the government retaliated, at least 18 civilians are reported to have been killed from barrel bombs or from having been caught in cross-fire or shot by snipers. Camp resident report that their greatest fears these days are ISIS snipers and night-time dropped barrel bombs.
As fighting has yet again intensified, the trickle of desperately needed humanitarian aid instantly dried up and residents continue to starve. In mid-2013, approximately 170 Palestinian refugees starved to death when a siege began and has now lasted for nearly 700 days.
All the relief organizations in Yarmouk have now closed down their centers and left the camp. Essentially no medical services remain and six Palestine Hospital staff were recently injured and most of the rest have fled out of fear of Da’ish arriving via tunnels which some claim they can hear being dug. Others claim that since 1 April, at least 18 civilians are reported to have been killed as a result of barrel bombs or from having been caught in cross-fire or shot by snipers, and at least three Palestinian fighters captured by IS forces were beheaded. If they can, Yarmouk residents are fleeing mainly due to fear of increasing numbers of snipers and nighttime barrel bombing.
UNRWA cannot do much given the enormity of the crisis and has repeatedly expressed, so far in vain, strong concern for the security of civilians and has demanded access to those civilians who remain inside Yarmouk. But their courageous staffs and Syrian volunteers have been doing what they can these past several days.
The UN Country Team, representing all UN humanitarian agencies in Syria, was about to arrange this week a 22-truck convoy of critical humanitarian items to Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham in partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and with representatives from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Program (WFP), the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Department for Safety and Security (UNDSS) as well as UNWRA. But failed to achieve their goals. Chris Gunness, a UNRWA spokesman, told the Associated Press that the agency has not been able to send any food or convoys into the camp since the recent fighting started. “That means that there is no food, there is no water and there is very little medicine,” he said. “The situation in the camp is beyond inhumane. People are holed up in their houses, there is fighting going on in the streets. There are reports of bombardments. This has to stop and civilians must be evacuated.”
UNRWA medical personnel did establish a mobile health point in Yalda, treating 325 patients over the course of the day. The team initiated a vaccine campaign, serving 28 children. The UNRWA team also provided food supplies to two community kitchens, sufficient to feed 900 individuals for one week. 1,200 packets of bread were delivered to civilians in Yalda, Babila and Beit Saham. UNRWA missions deliver a broad range of critical humanitarian materials to each of these families, including food, medical supplies, water purification treatments, mattresses, blankets, family kitchen sets and hygiene kits.
UNRWA continues to provide humanitarian assistance to the civilians outside of Yarmouk who remain displaced in Tadamoun, an area on the north-eastern periphery. The Agency is also providing some daily hot lunches for civilians, complemented by regular distribution of canned food.
A Syrian army commander, headquartered on the edge of Yarmouk advised this observer on 6/7/2015 that the Syrian government and UNWRA will relocate hundreds of recently escaped camp residents of secured housing in the coming week.
The Return to Yarmouk campaign announced this week shows potential to become a movement with wide support from the government, civil society and even some militia remnants. It is being led by Yarmouk refugees, some returning from Lebanon.
All people of good will can only hope that this Syrian and Palestinian Martyr’s Day effort succeeds and that despite the odds, Return to Yarmouk, will happen soon.
Franklin Lamb’s most recent book, Syria’s Endangered Heritage, An international Responsibility to Protect and Preserve is in production by Orontes River Publishing, Hama, Syrian Arab Republic. Inquires c/o firstname.lastname@example.org. The author is reachable c/o email@example.com