One month under ISIS: Starvation, typhoid and the burning of musical instruments in Yarmouk

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Editor’s Note: After two years of siege and nearly one-year of rampant starvation, fighters from the Islamic State (ISIS) and an al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Nusra Front, overran Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria on April 1st, 2015. The militants launched a surprise midnight attack and beheaded three Palestinians during their first raid. Today they control an estimated 80% of the camp. In this area arrests, killings, and even the burning of musical instruments—which are considered sinful under the austere salafi group’s interpretation of Islam—are common.

At the end of April, Palestinian fighters in Yarmouk were faced with a second battle line. Forces aligned with the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shelled the camp. Now the once thriving urban community formerly regarded as a cultural corner of Damascus, is living under the rule of ISIS and fighting off Syrian forces at the same time.

The United Nations estimates to date 18,000 are still trapped inside Yarmouk without access to food and water. Residents survive on grass and stray animals. Many have contracted jaundice, typhoid, and hepatitis. Some are able to sneak out at night to one of three nearby emergency relief stations, although they risk sniper fire.

Below is a day-by-day chronicle of Yarmouk’s strife authored by the Jafra Foundation for Youth Development and Relief, which operates inside of Yarmouk and in humanitarian depots outside of Damascus. Information in the timeline was collected by Jafra, from people with the organization who witnessed first-person the on-going events inside of Yarmouk and have not been independently confirmed.

View the previous timeline covering the first week of ISIS attacks in Yarmouk here.

Yarmouk refugee camp. April 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)
Yarmouk refugee camp. April 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)

April 13th, 2015 – Monday

Clashes between Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis [a Palestinian militia] and ISIS/Nusra continued around Yarmouk Secondary school in the north of the camp near Palestine Street, Yarmouk Street and Lubia Street. Civilians and civil society groups inside Yarmouk Camp held a sit-in calling the United Nations (UN) and Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to work towards a political solution for the ongoing humanitarian crisis inside the camp. In addition calls continue to demand the provision of basic human needs for the camp’s residents.

Marianne Gasser, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Syria noted that with the recent upsurge of fighting in and around Yarmouk, the situation for civilians has deteriorated once again, “People were already worn down by months of conflict and constant shortages of food, water and medicine and they need urgent help.”

Meanwhile, relief foundations have continued distribution of food parcels for displaced families in Yelda, Babilla and Beit Sahem.

Activists in Germany, Ireland and Lebanon held solidarity events for Yarmouk.

April 14th, 2015 – Tuesday

ISIS has continued losing ground to the local Palestinian militia Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis. Hundreds of fighters from ISIS have withdrawn from many parts of the camp, retreating back to their Hajar al-Aswad stronghold but leaving their positions in the hands of Nusra fighters. Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis’ fighters retook control of Rejeh Square in the northern part of the camp. Jafra and the Nour Foundation have continued distribution of food assistance, including bread, to displaced families from Yarmouk in the adjacent areas of Yelda, Babbilla and Beit Sahem.

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl paid a visit to Yarmouk IDPs in a Yelda shelter noted, “surviving life in the Islamic State (ISIS) held Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk is a miracle”.

International and local humanitarian foundations have called on all involved in fighting to allow the immediate and unimpeded passage of urgent humanitarian aid and to permit civilians who wish to leave the camp for safer areas to do so at any time. Syrian security forces have arrested a young Palestinian woman while she was attempting escape from southern Damascus via the Beit Sahem checkpoint.

Yarmouk refugee camp. April 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)
Yarmouk refugee camp. April 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)

April 15th, 2015 – Wednesday

Violent explosions rocked Yarmouk Camp, coinciding with warplanes hovering overhead, while violent clashes broke out between ISIS/Nusra and Aknaf brigades alongside volunteer fighters. The clashes broke out at the Yarmouk Municipality crossing, Palestine Street, and Rejeh Square. The clashes coincided with mortar shelling in the camp.

Palestinian militia Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis recaptured several buildings and advanced south from their positions in the northeast area of Yarmouk. The advance came after fierce clashes with ISIS on Jalal Ka’wash Street around Salah el-Deen Mosque.

Activists confirmed that ISIS’ defense line in the northern part of Yarmouk collapsed as its fighters were forced to retreat. Pro-government Palestinian militias of Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC) and Fatah al-Intifada stated they controlled Rejeh Square in the northern part of the camp.

One civilian was reportedly killed by shelling. Civilian lives continue to be threatened by the effects of the armed conflict in the camp. A young child was injured in his leg by sniper fire as he was heading towards Yelda on Al-Thalathein

Street near the Sports City in Yarmouk Camp. UNRWA said that its Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl had completed the third and final day of his mission to Syria in coordination with the Office of the UN Secretary-General. Krähenbühl has said earlier that the situation of the refugees living in Yarmouk makes it imperative for the international community to respond and to provide humanitarian assistance to the thousands trapped inside the camp.

Activists in the Palestinian city of Hebron have held a car march in solidarity with the people of Yarmouk.

April 16th, 2015 – Thursday

Yarmouk Camp was quiet on all fighting fronts. However, the plight of trapped civilians continues. Contradictory news reports were published by pro-government PFLP-GC sources and Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra. Nusra alleged it controlled Rejeh Square in the northern part of the camp; the PFLP-GC indicated otherwise.

On the humanitarian front, Yarmouk residents’ suffering continued while relief foundations continued distribution of food and hygiene aid to displaced families in Yelda, Babilla and Beit Sahem. Some civilians succeeded in bringing food back into Yarmouk Camp. Reports from today indicated that government-affiliated battalions arrested a number of men on their way to receive relief.

Palestinian refugee Rami Youssef Moussa died due to wounds he suffered as a result of shelling that targeted Rejeh Square in Yarmouk Camp. Hassan Haitham Al-Sallal, a PFLP-GC member died during clashes.

Significant progress was made by Aknaf brigades in the north of Yarmouk refugee camp, after violent clashes between Aknaf and ISIS/Nusra around Salah al-Deen Mosque. In the same context, the PFLP – GC and Fatah al-Intifada announced control of the Palestinian committees over Rejeh Square and on the opposite side near Yarmouk district court, as they advanced onto Lubia Street and its surrounding lanes.

UNRWA issued a press release about the last visit of the Commissioner-General of UNRWA, Pierre Krenpol, to Syria. The press release stated that the Commissioner-General of UNRWA in Syria has reviewed the mechanisms by which to resume the distribution of aid to the remaining civilians inside Yarmouk Camp. The statement also addressed ways to ensure a safe exit route for those civilians wishing to leave Yarmouk temporarily, as well as ways to expand the humanitarian response to those civilians from Yarmouk who arrived in neighboring southern Damascus areas. UNRWA confirmed that the situation inside Yarmouk refugee camp remains critical for thousands of civilians, while stressing their plan to follow ongoing developments in the coming days and sparing no effort to find ways to help the civilians inside the Yarmouk.

In the meantime the residents of Yarmouk have complained of checkpoint practices conducted by the Syrian army and the Palestinian groups allied with it. In addition they have complained of ongoing public theft and looting by all armed groups.

Charity Commission for Relief of Palestinian People in collaboration with the Global Relief Charity launched a campaign to distribute 1,000 food parcels for the residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp, including bread and infant’s milk. The people inside Yarmouk refugee camp, and IDPs in Yelda are suffering from a severe shortage of food and medical supplies, high prices, and incalculable unemployment, while aid and food baskets have become their only source of living.

April 17, 2015 – Friday

Dozens of people in Yarmouk Camp worked to transfer the bodies of nine Palestinian victims’ that were buried in the garden of Abdul-Qader al-Husseini Mosque during the last few days. The bodies were moved to the cemetery in the south of the camp.

The victims have all died due to on-going clashes, shelling, starvation and lack of medical care inside besieged Yarmouk Camp since April 1st, 2015. They are: Mohammed Nassar and his wife, Sana Khalili, Fethiye Abu Jaweid, Fouad Ahmad Al-Abdullah, Hussein Taha, Mohammed Tamim, Jamal Khalifa, and Abdul Latif Rimawi. It is noteworthy that the cemetery itself has no space for burying the dead, forcing burial of victims in simple spaces between graves or in mass graves. The same cemetery has been targeted by Syrian army warplanes and mortars.

Sporadic clashes broke out in Yarmouk, where the battles between Aknaf brigades and ISIS groups are continuous; ISIS, again, controls 80% of Yarmouk refugee camp with aid of Nusra. On the occasion of Palestinian Political Prisoners Day, Dr. Ismile Hanneya, the deputy head of Hamas’ political bureau, spoke at a rally in Gaza City. He reaffirmed the demands of the Hamas movement to leave Palestinian refugees out of ongoing clashes in Syria. He added that Hamas would not forget the Palestinian refugee camps, especially Yarmouk refugee camp.

The World Relief Organization and the Charity Committee for Relief of the Palestinian people distributed 1,000 food baskets as well as bread and baby milk to families displaced from Yarmouk refugee camp in the adjacent town of Yelda. It is noteworthy that the siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp, enforced by the Syrian army and it Palestinian allies, has continued for more than 650 days; electricity has been cut in the camp since April 2013; water inside the camp has been cut since September 2014.

April 18th, 2015 – Saturday

Many clashes took place within the day near Palestine Street, in the northwest of the camp. Ibrahim Ahmad, a Fatah al-Intifada fighter, was killed during these clashes. Within the last 10 days, tens of young activists succeeded to evacuate Yarmouk to Yelda as their fears of ISIS have grown. During the last 6 months, at least 14 activists have been assassinated inside the camp. In that same time, Nusra controlled growing portions of the camp; with the ISIS invasion aided by Nusra, activists have even further feared for their lives.

The Nour and Jafra Foundations, as well as UNRWA, continued to distribute food baskets to those Yarmouk residents who have fled to the Yelda area or to those who have succeeded in traveling to Yelda and returned, with their aid, to Yarmouk.

April 19, 2015 – Sunday

ISIS entered the home of famous musician father and son duo, Aihem and Ahmed Ahmad. Both Aihem’s famous piano and Ahmed’s beloved violin, along with all their other instruments, were incinerated by ISIS. Aihem was famous for pulling his piano on a wheeled trolley all over Yarmouk to sing for the residents of the camp. Both Ahmed and Aihem have evacuated to Yelda.

Abu Ahmad, one of the leaders of Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, said in an interview that ISIS and Nusra have become disorganized. Many cases of desertion have been recorded as members of ISIS/Nusra members escape to the Yelda area. He mentioned that his party, Aknaf, succeeded to push ISIS/Nusra to retreat and now control the area around Salah al-Deen Mosque. He said his fighters still fight from the north of the camp in the area around Yarmouk Secondary School, Salah al-Deen Mosque and from the southwest around Palestine Square. He said that Aknaf fighters have killed more than 80 ISIS fighters within the last 18 days.

The family and friends of Amjad Al Hindi have continued to ask for answers regarding his whereabouts. Amjad was arrested by Nusra on the 29th of March 2015. Nusra has made no public statements about his arrest. Amjad is the only person caring for his elderly mother, who has been alone since his arrest.

A demonstration by dozens of Palestinian-Syrians who arrived to Belgium took place in front of the EU Headquarters building in Brussels. They asked the international community and European countries to act in support of those civilians in Yarmouk and of Palestinian refugees in Syria in general.

April 20, 2015 – Monday

Within the day, heavy clashes took place between the Palestinian brigades and ISIS/Nusra. Schools in Yarmouk reopened their doors after 20 days. Hundreds of students attended the first day back at school. Some activists who remain in Yarmouk published a statement to explain that they have established three offices inside the camp to try to manage civilian issues – a relief office, a union services office, and a formal media office. Some information was leaked that this was, in fact, a statement from Nusra in attempts to pressure foundations and relief organizations to enter aid into the camp rather than only into neighboring areas.

April 21, 2015 – Tuesday

Two young men, one of them Saed Fourani, were killed by sniper fire. At two different points during the day both of these young men were shot in the south of the camp. This raises the number of civilian casualties inside Yarmouk Camp, since the April 1st ISIS invasion, to 30 persons.

ISIS released seven civilians from makeshift prisons in the camp. One of those released was Sheik Abu Salah of Al -Safadi Mosque in the south of Yarmouk. Abu Salah has been an active local community representative within the last months.

Clashes broke out around Rejeh Square between PFLP- GC forces and ISIS/Nusra during the night. Within a closed session held on Monday to discuss the Yarmouk situation, the UN Security Council launched a three-point-plan in order to provide assistance to the people of the Yarmouk Camp. The three points included providing aid to civilians who are unable or unwilling to leave the camp, to help those who want to “move temporarily” from the camp in accordance with international humanitarian law under appropriate safeguards that will allow them to do so safely and freely, and to help Yarmouk residents who have already fled.

The UN Security Council members expressed their deep concern about the serious humanitarian situation inside the camp, and stressed the need to support the efforts of distribution of emergency relief to Palestinian civilians in Yarmouk refugee camp.

The UN Security Council’s statement called for all parties involved in the ongoing crisis to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law and refugee law, and urged to stop all attacks against civilians, including aerial bombardments.

The statement condemned all acts of terrorism committed in the camp, and called ISIS, Nusra, and all “terrorist” organizations to withdraw from Yarmouk immediately, and to immediately implement the related resolutions of the UN Security Council, including decisions 2139, 2165 and 2191, in line with international humanitarian law. It should be noted that a previous session was held on Monday, April 6th, 2015. Five days after the ISIS invasion the UN Security Council held an emergency session to discuss the situation in Yarmouk Camp. It demanded the entrance of humanitarian aid into Yarmouk refugee camp amid Palestinian warnings of genocide amidst a severely deteriorated humanitarian situation.

April 22, 2015 – Wednesday

Clashes continued in Rejeh Square inside Yarmouk Camp between the PFLP – GC, allied with the Syrian government, and ISIS. Last night heavy shelling and government rockets rained down on the camp. Clashes were also reported on Palestine Street between the Syrian National Defense Army and the Gara’een group. This evening government rockets have begun targeting the south of Yarmouk.

The Coalition for a Democractic Syria sent a letter today to the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura. The letter expressed concern for the remaining civilians inside besieged Yarmouk. In the letter, the coalition detailed the ongoing humanitarian struggle inside the camp. In addition, blame was assigned to both the Syrian government and ISIS, as both have continued to terrorize the besieged civilians. However, the letter did not mention the role that Nusra has played inside the camp. The Coalition called for the end of the siege and evacuation of the remaining civilians.

Mohammad Towfeek, a man in his 60’s, was found killed by unknown parties inside his home on Oroba Street in the south of Yarmouk. Medical volunteers from Palestine Hospital reported Mr. Towfeek had been killed at least two days ago and that his injuries indicated that his neck had been snapped.

In the last two days, twins were born to a family from Yarmouk in the Yelda area. The two babies were brought to the Babilla medical center to be monitored as they were born early and both were obviously malnourished due to the ongoing siege. The government-imposed drought, which began in September 2014, has caused many southern Damascus residents to use any water source available to them. Water-borne diseases are on the rise; jaundice, Hepatitis of all kinds, and typhoid are present in southern Damascus. All of these diseases are highly contagious. Reports from Palestine Hospital indicate a rise in stomach illness amongst children under 12 in the last three months.

April 23, 2015 – Thursday

No clashes took place today inside Yarmouk Camp. There is a quiet tension as many international political parties and actors make statements and hold meetings about expected military action inside the camp in the upcoming days.

The Deputy UN Envoy to Syria, Ramzi Ezzedine, said in an interview published by UN radio, the situation in Yarmouk Camp is extremely inhumane. He said that the UN is taking practical steps to support and protect the people, while attempting to find ways to evacuate civilians inside Yarmouk. He also stated that the UN is trying to reach those who wish to stay inside the camp.

In the same interview, Ezzedine claimed that some of the civilians who wish to remain inside Yarmouk are affiliated with fighters from ISIS and Nusra. This resulted in a large reaction on Facebook from civilians inside the camp, Palestinian activists outside the camp, and people around the world. Many, generally remarked, the UN should not blame people who have been besieged in southern Damascus for three years who wish to stay in their homes, especially considering that they are Palestinian refugees, considering they have nowhere else to find shelter. Civilians and activists also remarked, these neighborhoods were forcefully occupied by ISIS and Nustra. Palestinians in Syria face extremely dire conditions as all borders to other neighboring countries are specifically closed to them.

The Syrian Red Crescent entered 1,000 food baskets to Babilla today, as part of an ongoing deal with the Syrian government and local authorities in these areas to enter food. This is the second time this month they have entered food into this area.

The Head of the Civil Council in Yarmouk, Fawzi Hamid, stated that Yarmouk Camp is dying as it is facing the most terrible of times since the crisis in Syria erupted. He asked that humanitarian aid be entered inside the camp; he also demanded electricity, water and fuel and to release arrested Palestinians from Syrian prisons as part of steps to normalize life inside the camp.

April 25, 2015 – Friday

Between noon and three PM, heavy clashes took place in the southwest of the camp. On the frontlines in the south ISIS/Nusra fought with and Ababil Horan and the Islam Army. Clashes took place around the stadium between Oroba Street and Yelda. This is the same road that civilians are using to enter and leave Yelda; this morning tens of people were stuck in the area until clashes stopped. Fortunately no one was injured or killed.

The Yarmouk Civil Council visited those Yarmouk residents who have evacuated to a shelter in Yelda. The purpose of the visit was to check on the conditions of the shelter, and to find solutions for those who wish to return to the camp. Ahmad Mejdelani, part of the PLO delegation who visited with the Syrian government earlier this month, said that a new delegation from the PLO will arrive to Damascus on Monday. He stated there are no new negotiations that will take place, but instead the delegation will simply follow up on what was previously agreed with the Syrian government. Mejdelani also noted that they hope to find a way to protect the civilians inside the camp, as they have been concerned since ISIS invaded, and since their last visit did not yield any real practice steps forward for civilians on the ground.

More than 1,800 Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk have been killed in Syria since March 2011. 176 humans have starved to death inside besieged Yarmouk since the start of the full siege, which began in July 2013.

Jaramak school in Yarmouk camp, April 30, 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)
Jaramak school in Yarmouk camp, April 30, 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)

April 25, 2015 – Saturday

There have been new developments on the military front lines inside southern Damascus. The road to Yelda, Babilla and Beit Sahem will be closed in two days according to signs posted along the route in the south of Yarmouk Camp today. Sources claim that groups from these neighboring areas will begin a military campaign to push ISIS and Nusra out of the camp. Some civilians ripped down these signs today and there is no real confirmation that the road will be closed. However, Syrian government tanks have lined up on Nisreen Street, while it is rumored that the PFLP-GC has brought 300 fighters from Lebanon to the Damascus area to begin military operations inside the camp. Desertion continues as fighters from both ISIS and Nusra have begun moving out of Yarmouk into Yelda.

Bashar Al-Jafaari, Syrian Envoy to the UN, claimed today that there are no civilians left inside the camp. On the contrary, hundreds of young students are attending classes at Jaramak School, as confirmed by photos on Facebook taken by activists inside the camp.

Many Palestinian refugees wish the stay in the camp, as they are worried about their chances of survival outside the camp. Again, all borders to neighboring countries are closed to Palestinians in Syria.

The Syrian Red Crescent entered humanitarian aid to Yelda, Babilla and Beit Sahem today. UNRWA entered 300 bags of bread and two large water tanks.

Palestinian Syrian activists from Yarmouk seeking asylum in Germany attended the Arabian Palestinian conference in Berlin today. The conference focused on the affairs of Palestinian Syrians within the Syrian conflict. The group of young activists interrupted the conference, chanting that the Palestinian embassy does not represent the real demands of the Palestinian people and that those running the Palestinian embassy in Germany have not stood by their own people.

Demonstration in front of United Nations building in Yarmouk refugee camp, April 26, 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)
Demonstration in front of United Nations building in Yarmouk refugee camp, April 26, 2015. (Photo: Yarmouk63 Radio)

April 26, 2015 – Sunday

ISIS has been forced to retreat from their positions inside Yarmouk Camp. In response, those Palestinians arrested inside the camp by ISIS were moved from makeshift jails inside the camp, to an unknown location outside the camp. Tens of civilians have been arrested since the ISIS invasion of Yarmouk Camp began on the 1st of April.

Dozens of besieged Yarmouk residents demonstrated today inside the camp in reaction to yesterday’s statements made by international representatives claiming that no civilians remain inside the camp. Bashar al-Jafaari, Syria’s Envoy to the UN, claimed yesterday that Yarmouk no longer houses any civilians. Yarmouk residents held signs saying “We live in Yarmouk Camp”, young children carried signs that read “We are Here, We are Civilians”. Demonstrators also called for the entrance of humanitarian aid inside Yarmouk Camp.

Ahmed Mejdelani, Palestinian Labor Minister and head of the delegation scheduled to visit Damascus tomorrow, also claimed that Yarmouk Camp is free of civilians. In his statements he stated that 25,000 families have recently fled Yarmouk, while all other Yarmouk residents have fled to Lebanon or Europe.

Statistics suggest otherwise, as UNRWA has mentioned that 18,000 civilians remained inside the camp as of April 1st, 2015. In addition, numbers recorded by UNRWA suggest that at least 100,000 Yarmouk Camp residents are now living in or around Damascus in IDP shelters, or in other Palestinian camps. Some Palestinians, not necessarily from Yarmouk Camp, have managed to leave the country. According to UNRWA’s February 2015 statistics approximately 10,000 Palestinian Syrians have fled to Jordan, 50,000 to Lebanon, 6,000 to Egypt, and 2,500 to Turkey. All borders to neighboring countries have been closed to Palestinian Syrians.

The PLO delegation, headed by Mejdelani, will arrive to the Syrian capital of Damascus tomorrow, Monday April 27, 2015, to discuss the ongoing situation inside Yarmouk refugee camp. In the same interview today, Mejdelani stated that Yarmouk Camp would become a battlefield, confirming suspicions of military actions planned for the upcoming week. Turkish police detained 350 people today in the city of Mersin, headed to the sea to immigrate to Europe. Of the 350, 53 were Palestinians. Sources say the large group was heading to the Turkish coast to board a boat to Italy, where all had planned to seek asylum.

View the previous timeline covering the first week of ISIS attacks in Yarmouk here.

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It sounds like hell on earth.

Thank you to the Nour and Jafra Foundations, UNRWA, The World Relief Organization, the Charity Committee for Relief of the Palestinian people, the Syrian Red Crescent, and any other relief organizations that are trying to prevent more death.

May this misery end soon.

What exactly is “a Syrian-based NGO “? There are a wide variety of groups that call themselves NGOs, including some affiliated with the National Endowment for Democracy. Here’s a different perspective about Yarmouk: … Who are the remaining civilians and why are they refusing to evacuate to outside shelter like… Read more »

According to SANA’s coverage of Al-Jaafaari’s remarks at the UN, He did not claim that there were zero civilians in Yarmouk, but that the numbers had declined in recent months from around 18,000 to only 1000. In the first few days after ISIS entered the camp, the UN was reporting… Read more »

“the burning of musical instruments—which are considered sinful under the austere salafi group’s interpretation of Islam”

None of that wicked Rock and/or Roll for them. It’s the Devil’s music.