Unverified video depicting aftermath of shelling in Yarmouk refugee camp on August 2, 2012.
The Palestinian camps in Syria have again been engulfed by the crisis in the country as 20 refugees were killed August 2nd in a Damascus United Nations-run camp. While international news agencies and the UN have not named the al-Assad regime as responsible for the Palestinians’ deaths, a spokesman for Yarmouk camp and citizen journalist, Ramy al-Asheq, confirmed that the al-Assad regime and pro-government militias were behind the two fatal blasts that targeted civilians at a mini-market in an outdoor souq. Al-Asheq said:
The regime is responsible. They have bombed al-Ja’una Street. The first one killed five people and when others went to gather the bodies and help the injured they launched another bomb and made the number 20. We have identified 14 of them [the deceased] and six are still unknown.
The United Nations Refugee Works Association (UNRWA) announced on August 3rd that they could not confirm the number.
Al-Asheq works with a street team throughout the camp that witnessed the fighting. Their compiled timeline begins on Friday, July 27 when 10 tanks entered Yarmouk, supported by 15 buses filled with pro-regime militiamen, called shabeeha, or “thugs”. Six of the buses were packed with around 50 armed al-Assad loyalists and the remaining nine held about half as many. On July 28 the militias then accompanied the military in door-to-door raids searching for “armed men.” When camp residents refused to let the gunmen search, al-Asheq said, “The thugs (shabeeha) went with the army and searched homes and fired at civilians and of course the snipers were on top of the buildings.” He added, “[I]n some cases they stole stuff from some houses and forced open doors that were closed. At the same time there were three tanks and four buses at Falesteen hospital on Yarmouk Street.” Al-Asheq said the searches continued until August 3.
Unverified video taken August 2, 2012 in Yarmouk camp in the aftermath of military shelling.
Meanwhile on Friday, July 27, Ma’an News Agency reported pro-regime forces shelled the hospital, the camp’s last functional medial facility, overtaking it the following day. The atmosphere has remained tense for days, culminating August 2nd on Thalatheen Street when one of al-Assad’s tanks fired two shells. Despite accounts like al-Asheq’s, news agencies covering the clashes in the Palestinian camp have yet to attribute which party killed the refugees. The Associated Press reported the deaths came from, “mortars [that] hit as shoppers were buying food for the evening meal.” Their coverage continued by quoting accounts from both the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and a Syrian state outlet:
We don’t know where the mortars came from, whether they were from the Syrian regime or not the Syrian regime,” said Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Observatory. He added they could also have been strays from the fighting in nearby Tadamon.
The state news agency blamed the bombardment on ‘terrorist mercenaries’ — a term the government uses for rebel fighters — and said they had been chased away by security forces.
Prior to the recent casualties, the Syrian crisis had already entangled Palestinian refugees. As of last week, the Observatory reported 150 Palestinians were killed since fighting began over a year ago, with al-Asheq citing the number closer to 200. The UN also reported some refugees have fled. In one camp alone near Dara’a over 10,000, two-thirds of the camp’s population, have abandoned their homes.
Citizen journalists photograph of a Palestinian killed on July 21, 2012, Yarmouk refugee camp, Syria. (Photo: AP)
Fighting reached Damascus less than one month ago, but the Palestinian leadership has maintained its neutral stance. Yet on July 21 and 22, the clashes spread into Yarmouk. Citizen journalists captured images of the dead, but like this week’s violence, the origin of hostilities are not confirmed by any major news agency. In part, this is because the lines are not clearly drawn. Al-Asheq even indicated one of the Palestinian political parties, the PFLP-General Command (GC) (no relation to the PFLP) is aiding the pro-regime forces. On August 4 their office was shelled, although Ma’an reported the fire came from the Syrian military. That same day the Damascus director of the PLO, Anwar Abdul-Hadi, condemned the PFLF-GC for endangering the refugees after allegedly distributing weapons. “We reject this completely because our protection is the responsibility of the state of Syria, and we are only guests there,” said Abdul-Hadi.
Last year the PFLP-GC was also embroiled in scandal after the party leadership killed 11 Palestinians protesting the party’s failure to protect them from Israeli fire, during an al-Naqsa (the anniversary for the 1967 War) march to the border with Israel.
Al-Asheq believes a place like Yarmouk is not covered accurately because it does not fit the mold of sectarian violence. He said, “[T]he fight to politicize the revolution is huge. Some people and sides do not want the revolution to appear a peoples’ movement.”
As well, there is a history of Palestinian refugees targeted by governments, sometimes massacred and sometimes expelled. Like Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, Kuwait in the 1990s, Iraq in the 2000s, the stability Palestinians once experienced in Syria is gone. A notable battle in the camps took place in 1976 during Lebanon’s 20-year civil war when thousands were massacred in Tal el-Zataar, a Palestinian camp that was home to PLO resistance fighters. It was raided by a coalition of Phalangists and Lebanese nationalists, supported by Syrian forces directed by Hafez al-Assad, father to Bashar al-Assad. Ultimately after the PLO lost to the Christian-right, the camp was demolished. Although the circumstances in Lebanon differ from today’s in Syria, where Palestinians have largely remained neutral, they still find themselves in a precarious situation that comes with residing in a country erupting in violence.
In Syria, life is tenuous because Palestinian refugees experience relative privileges. They can attend school and seek employment. And although Yarmouk is overcrowded with a population of 150,000 housed in cinder block buildings, the camp functions more like a neighborhood of Damascus than an island of people languishing. In part this is due to its proximity to the city center, but also because Palestinian refugees are integrated into the Syrian system almost as if they were citizens. UNRWA explains:
Many of the refugees in Yarmouk are professional, working as doctors, engineers and civil servants. Others are employed as casual labourers and street vendors. Overall, living conditions in Yarmouk are far better than those of the other Palestine refugee camps in Syria.
Yet the elevated status for those in Yarmouk does not shield them from the vulnerabilities that all Palestinians refugees face when host countries crumble. And after this most recent attack, the Syrian government has clearly shown Palestinians will not be spared.
It is worth mentioning that verifying any information in Syria is difficult, if not impossible. Even the frequently-cited Syrian Observatory has been subject to criticism. It should be acknowledged that there is no independent way to verify the first-hand account presented in this article as the battle over narratives rages on.