What follows are the meditations of four current Palestinian residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. They were prompted to reflect on the state of the camp, what Palestine means to them now after what they have experienced and what they would want to say to Palestinians outside of Syria. The four residents interviewed here come from varied political and professional backgrounds ranging from local relief work to artwork to journalism. Their opinions are theirs alone and have been produced unaltered below although their names have been changed at their request.
Note: The Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command (PFLP-GC) is a Palestinian faction, distinct from the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine, that is led by Ahmed Jibril. It is strongly allied with the Syrian regime and essentially tasked with enforcing the siege on Yarmouk. There is also reference to oppositional militants inside the camp. They are compromised primarily of two factions; Aknaf Bait al Makdes and Jabhat al Nusra, some of the crimes of the latter are documented here.
Hakim Saeid, photographer: The regime is primarily at fault. They used us as propaganda. In many ways it was in their interest to have the opposition enter Yarmouk so that they could cut us off during a time when their lack of resources made it hard for them to provide services. The PFLP-GC are considered an extension of the regime, we in the camp do not even consider them a different political body. Of course, there were plenty of other interests that played a big role in all this destruction. In my opinion, a lot of it was done in coordination or with the tacit acceptance of the Palestinian Authority who has betrayed us completely. We feel the betrayal from Palestinians in general as well, just as we do from some of our friends outside the camp and among the opposition.
We are living through a huge catastrophe; a second Nakba. We ask the Palestinians outside of Syria to come out to the street. We aren’t asking them to burn embassies or do anything huge, we are only asking for them to have peaceful demonstrations so that our voices, which have been choked, may reach the world. I don’t count on any government. I count on people who are able to amplify our voices. I count on them to come out and speak. I count on people, not governments. Our cause is a human one before it is a political one. We, Palestinians, are a hated people. Hated by all governments. What is asked of our fellow Palestinians in the West is that they go speak about Yarmouk, speak about our suffering. Many Palestinians in Europe and America have betrayed us. The Palestinians who used to demonstrated and collect aid for Gaza, where are they for Yarmouk today? Some even stand with the regime. They stand with that which is killing us.
What the right of return means for me now, after what we saw, is that those who are unable to save the land they are on will never be able to return to the lands they are from. We have lost and we continue to lose. I will personally need at least ten years to overcome what has happened here in Yarmouk, after all these people have died. The Palestinian cause has been strongly damaged. There is a saying we have here in the camp now that the dead cannot the dead. We are dead and we cannot carry the Palestinian cause, which feels dead to us now. Yarmouk was the center of the refugees of Palestine, politically and culturally. Now we are weakened. The people of Yarmouk are not free to ask for their right of return to Palestine. They are simply saying, ‘let me live, I don’t want to return, I just want to live.’
Ahmad, local aid worker with Palestinian non-profit: As Palestinians from Syria, we have lived another dispossession. I am relearning what my father and grandfather lived. I felt we lost Palestine again and that we have been distanced from the right of return again. After sixty five years, as close as we got, I felt we lost another sixty five years after what has happened here.
Yarmouk was the center of the Palestinian diaspora. Yarmouk was so significant, it was the center of political and cultural Palestinian life, and we were closer to Palestine than the camps in Jordan or Lebanon or even the West Bank. We lost all of this after we lost Yarmouk. The regime has tried to take our cause. It is damaging it and the idea of Palestine; but we know what they did to Palestinian in Lebanon and what they are doing to us now.
I’d be a liar if I said that the idea of Palestine hasn’t diminished in my mind. After what we saw from the factions, we truly realized that we had no one. I no longer want to return to Palestine. Our country is gone. We finally know what it means to have a country that is destroyed. We have also felt abandoned by the Palestinians outside Syria. There was no one to rely on. If our people stood with us and we were joined as a single hand, this wouldn’t have happened. They betrayed us, the Palestinian who have never once asked about us. When something happened in Ramallah or Gaza, the whole camp would come out to protest. And here we are starving to death because there is an animal at the gate preventing any entry, and that animal is a Palestinians like us. Can you imagine there is even still a PFLP-GC presence in Palestine? No one has stopped them. Can you imagine that?
All I would say to the Palestinians outside and to the whole world is that we are alone. We in Yarmouk are alone.
Abu Wissam, civilian journalist: The first thing I would like to say is that the whole world betrayed us. They all betrayed us. The camp is by itself as Syria is by itself. We all feel betrayed. We are starving to death while normal life continues a few miles away.
The Syrian regime is to blame for the siege. The regime and the PFLP-GC. But it is also important to realize that many of the opposition fighters who were in Yarmouk were pushing an agenda to destroy the camp.
The opposition abroad has done nothing to help us or focus on our situation either.
I can’t give any answer about personal regrets; I can’t answer that until we see what happens, how this catastrophe ends. Either something good will comes of all this or we will live in this betrayal and then in regret. We still have hope that all this will result in something better. The seed has been planted. But it’s being trapped now. Just as there are those who are enforcing siege, we have militants here in Yarmouk who aren’t allowing any light to shine from within the camp.
Hassan, activist: In my own opinion, there is no revolution that comes with romance, it always comes with struggle. This catastrophe has affected us but many of us had expected it, we expected that a day would come when we were forced to give up more than we imagined. You know that when there is a goal, you have to sacrifice a lot. Freedom is expensive.
When it comes to the besiegement of the camp, it is essential to remember the importance of Yarmouk. The second thing is that throughout the uprisings, a lot of transgressions against the camp were committed from a lot of different sides, including the opposition. Many different sides involved themselves in the conflict in a terrible way. The siege can be compared to Sabra and Shatilla in many aspects. If you take into consideration how the various Palestinian factions co-existed together in the camp before the conflict, it gives you an idea of how important Yarmouk was strategically. Now, there is a huge split.
The dispossession of Palestinians from camp and Syria is in the interest of many people, especially those who are opposed to the right of return. The PA had a big role in all this in my opinion. The camp was small in size but it was enormous in its significance.
There was also hatred and resentment towards Palestinians in Syria amongst some of the opposition. There were many rumors spread about the camp to make people think that the people in the camp were living well while people outside were experiencing the suffering that comes with revolution. Of course it wasn’t true, Yarmouk was one of the most important places that endorsed the revolution. But these rumors are an example of the many interests that conspired against the camp. During the entry of the opposition, the night of their entry, a lot of rumors came out warning people that the regime was about to invade and encouraging them to leave camp. There are many groups who had an interest in the camp being emptied. Some of us that were active tried to stop people from leaving Yarmouk but people were scared. It can be compared to Nakba. The story being repeated to everyone at the time was that everyone should leave because the army is coming to invade the camp and that everyone will be able to return in a week. Most people left that night, very few remained. There is a lot that happened that people don’t know. We are trying to get writers or people who are active outside to broadcast our experiences but no one is doing it. We trying to get our story out, about the unbelievable interests and complexities that we have seen, but no one wants to tell our story. We are trying to record everything that has happened. We are trying to at least have it recorded.
In terms of what people can do, I’ll give you a good example: Kobani. People gave it attention and aid was sent there. I say to the Palestinians outside Syria: could you stand for Yarmouk for just one day? We don’t want money or aid from any of you, we don’t want you to end siege. Just stand for a single day, all of you, in solidary with us. Then you can all return to your lives. Just one day were you all stand up and announce that there are a group of Palestinians who remained in Yarmouk and did not permit for another dispossession.