Syria conflict: Fighting for a future for Yarmouk

By Lyse Doucet
Chief international correspondent

  • Published
Yarmouk, 6 AprilImage source, AFP
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Yarmouk, once a home for 150,000 Palestinian refugees, has been devastated by Syria's war

A refugee camp which grew into the liveliest of neighbourhoods is now crumbling into the deadliest of quarters as life drains away by the day.

Never has the future of Yarmouk looked so uncertain for the community of Palestinian refugees as well as Syrians who call it home.

"There are a few scenarios, and some are nightmarish," said an Arab diplomat in the Syrian capital.

A place trapped in a deepening maelstrom since it was drawn into Syria's uprising in 2012 suffered another devastating blow this month when the jihadist Islamic State (IS) group entered the battle for the area.

Despite reports IS gunmen had withdrawn to their stronghold in the adjoining neighbourhood of Hajar al-Aswad, sources in Damascus say fighting continues among Palestinian factions with IS fighters pushed back, but still present in about 40% of Yarmouk.

The terrifying bombardment by Syrian jets appears to have halted for the moment at least. Arab and Western diplomats say the imminent threat of an assault by Syrian government forces and their Palestinian allies has also gone.

"For the moment, fighting is mainly by local Palestinians," said one Western diplomat. "But if IS stays in an area so close to Damascus, it's hard to say what will happen."

Punishing siege

And, for the moment, Yarmouk's descent into what UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon called "the deepest circle of hell" appears to have precipitated new measures of co-operation from the Syrian government and some opposition groups in a longstanding humanitarian battle to aid this stricken community.

"Our priority now is to save lives," said the UN's Deputy Envoy Ramzy Ezzedine Ramzy, who spoke to me by telephone from Damascus.

"Conditions inside are extremely dire," he said. "We are devising plans to help those who leave, but also those who stay."

Image source, EPA
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Yarmouk has seen fighting between Palestinian factions as well as government forces and jihadist groups

Thousands have now been allowed to escape from Yarmouk where they've been trapped for nearly two years by a punishing government siege, and threats from rival factions.

Many residents are taking temporary shelter in adjoining neighbourhoods like Yalda and Babila where there are local agreements between armed opposition groups and the Syrian government.

"It's a good sign," said Mr Ramzy cautiously. "We will continue to count on the government's co-operation."

Some relief

The UN has been able to deliver more aid across opposition lines in this area than ever before. It has also secured assurances, some even in writing, from local rebel groups to allow relief convoys to reach the shelters through checkpoints under their control.

Even the group now described as the most powerful opposition force in Yarmouk, the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, is reported to have promised safe passage to relief convoys entering Yarmouk.

That presents what one UN official called a "highly charged" political challenge, since it is under UN Security Council sanctions. There is also evidence that while IS and al-Nusra are battling each other elsewhere in Syria, in southern Damascus they are working together.

"Who is al-Nusra and who is IS just isn't clear," said an aid official in Damascus.

Image source, Reuters
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An Islamic State flag displayed on the ruins of Yarmouk's main street

Most fighters are from this area and often shift allegiances, depending on the state of rivalries and resources. That helps explain the sudden rise of IS in southern Damascus.

IS's entry into Yarmouk on 1 April, with little or no fighting, was through a crossing controlled by al-Nusra. While al-Nusra insists it remains neutral, most clashes have pitted IS against al-Nusra's main rival, Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis - said to be linked to the Palestinian group Hamas.

"Yarmouk must be a place where the politics of the possible begins to take hold," said Pierre Krahenbuhl who heads UNRWA, the UN's Palestinian refugee agency. Mr Krahenbuhl rushed to Damascus when the current crisis erupted and called for greater humanitarian access to the camp.

Overwhelming destruction

UNRWA, along with local aid groups, has been struggling for years to provide sustained deliveries of food, water, and medical supplies. They have currently not been able to enter Yarmouk since 28 March.

Mr Ramzy said some supplies are now trickling in as residents manage to go back and forth through crossings with medical kits, chemicals for water purification, and food.

But it is not enough for a place which has become a symbol of the profound pain and tangled politics of Syria's war. On a few visits last year, where we managed to obtain rare access inside Yarmouk, we found streets of overwhelming destruction and despair.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The UN distributes what food it can in Yarmouk but gaining access is not easy.

Estimates of how many people are still left in the camp after this latest upsurge in violence vary from 6,000 to 15,000, from a population of 18,000 when IS fighters moved in.

Many remain trapped in their homes, fearing reprisals if they leave.

"Many people can't leave unless a safe passage is created with international observers," said Salim Salameh, who lived in Yarmouk until 2012 and now heads the Palestinian League for Human Rights, a Syrian advocacy group.

And there are the even bigger questions over what the future holds for a once vibrant community which numbered about 180,000 before it was drawn into Syria's deadly conflict.

"We fear attention to this new military situation will prevail over the main issues of starvation, siege, and the attempt to find a durable solution for Palestinians in Syria and in particular Yarmouk," said Mr Salamah.

'We must go back'

Even as the hardship and horror of this war pushes thousands to flee, the powerful pull of Yarmouk remains. For families who first sought refuge there in the wake of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, fear of another displacement is seared in their sense of self.

"It's our little Palestine," insisted one man who had taken temporary refuge outside the camp. "We must go back."

"This is a UN registered and UN protected population," a Western diplomat told me. "The records exist and once this horrendous conflict is over there is the possibility to reconstruct a lost community."

It is, he said, a "distant hope".

For now though, for the people of Yarmouk, there is the more urgent hope to simply survive.