Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk neighborhood of Damascus took to the streets on January 18th to protest the siege imposed by the Assad government.
Children marched with signs reading “The children of Yarmouk are dying of hunger and cold” and “No to hunger for our children and our elderly!” Other protesters held a banner reading “No to martyrdom by hunger in Yarmouk camp.” The refugees also chanted “We are, we are refugees,” among other political and religious slogans.
During the rally, a representative spoke on behalf of the local armed opposition groups “to address lies of the ‘traitors’ and to protest the killing of” two Palestinians. He called “on all armed groups to respect these martyrs,” and demanded “the opening of the camp, as it is in the interest of our people.” He said “we know of the hardships our people, suffering inside and out,” and insisted that “our military factions in this camp all agree for an immediate ceasefire to open the camp and let in aid workers and to remove any excuse by the regime and shabiha [paramilitary units that act as unofficial regime troops] to withhold aid.”
Over Two Years of Starvation and Suffering
Since December 2012, civilians in Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria—what some refer to as the “capital of the Palestinian diaspora”—have been under siege and constant attack by the Syrian regime. Assad has bombed and shelled them, destroying much of the neighborhood’s infrastructure and even UNRWA shelters. Amnesty International has characterized the Syrian government’s siege on Yarmouk as “brutal” and has accused the Assad regime of carrying out “war crimes and crimes against humanity” against Palestinian and Syrian civilians in the neighborhood.
In 2011, on the eve of the revolution, the UN estimated approximately 160,000 people lived in Yarmouk. When the regime began to target densely populated civilian areas with heavy artillery, many Palestinians fled, becoming refugees once again, for a second time. As of July 2014, UNRWA estimated that there were still 18,000 civilians “trapped” in Yarmouk.
Under the siege, the regime controls essentially everything that goes into Yarmouk. Palestinians have been trying to survive on starvation diets for years. Food is so scarce that refugees have resorted to eating grass, cats and dogs, animal feed, and dirt. Many have died from hunger, and infant malnutrition is skyrocketing. Moreover, the lack of access to healthcare and the destruction of the Yarmouk’s infrastructure has led to women frequently dying in childbirth, as well as to the outbreak of many diseases.
In an early 2014 interview with Mondoweiss, a Palestinian refugee said “Total closure means nobody and nothing goes in or out. So there is now a total lack of food, medicine and diesel, and all other materials. … there is a shortage of electricity and the situation is more and more collapsing… there are around 500 wounded persons and they need special care, direct medical help and evacuation.”
Critics have pointed out that the Syrian regime justifies this brutal siege on Yarmouk with many of the same excuses Israel has used to justify its illegal siege on Gaza. Paralleling Israeli officials’ arguments about Hamas and Gaza, Assad characterizes Yarmouk as a hotbed for terrorists who oppose his rule and argues that it is therefore justified to bomb, shell, and starve civilian areas in order to uproot such a presence. Amnesty International has accused the regime of using starvation as a “weapon of war,” as a form of collective punishment aimed at defeating armed rebels in the area.
One of the principal ways in which Assad has tried to justify his rule is with claims that he, unlike the Arab countries surrounding Syria, supports the Palestinian people. Many Palestinians in Yarmouk, nevertheless, have found such a claim to ring hollow and unsubstantiated, particularly after incidents in 2011 in which the regime-backed PFLP-GC (unaffiliated with the PFLP) led to the deaths of numerous Palestinians. Assad’s two-year siege and bombardment of the largest Palestinian refugee camp in all of Syria has led many to further question the authenticity of his purported support.
Many thanks to Rami Safadi for helping with the translations in this article.