Lifting the Siege of Yarmouk
by FRANKLIN LAMB
Yarmouk Palestinian camp, Damascus
As of 2/6/14 it’s been seven days since the first humanitarian aid, generally in the form of 56 lb. food parcels packed by UNWRA, the World Food Program, the ICRC or European aid organizations have been able to enter Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp following half a dozen aborted attempts the past few months by various militia and political groups to achieve consensus to deliver aid. The aid parcels, including two kilos of rice, two kilos sugar, three kilos lentils, three kilos dry macaroni, plus flour, jam, tea, oil, and sweet Halawi spread are intended to feed a family of five to eight for ten days. The boxes have been trickling into the South side of the Yarmouk Palestinian camp and up along Rima Street where this observer has seen crowds this past week tensely waiting and hoping for food and clean water. For some camp residents the wait for relief began in June of 2013 when all entrances and exits to Yarmouk camp were cut.
Up to this morning, approximately 5,300 food parcels have been allowed into Yarmouk or an average of 800-1,000 food packages daily. Aid has been entering sporadically and sometimes chaotically, with perceptible but slight increases over the past week.
A large yellow flat-bed truck arrived on the morning of 2/5/14 and this observer watched as food parcels were off-loaded and neatly stacked into six white pick-up trucks that were then driven into Yarmouk under the watchful gaze of pro and anti-regime forces and security agents. According to one source from South Beirut who this observer had met earlier, Jabhat al Nusra, Jabhat Islam, Daash and Jund al Cham snipers could be observed on rooftops monitoring the distribution activity with their eyes pressed against their rifle scopes. One SARCS volunteer who this observer has known for two years advised that she feared there might be a shootout between these fighters and nearby Palestinian forces allied with the government (Ahmad Jibril’s PFLP-GC) suspected Hezbollah fighters with hand radio phones who were watching and seemingly discussing the events. Frankly, for this observer, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish which group is which around here given the proliferation of fighters with beards and essentially indistinguishable attire.
For many food parcel recipients, their first act is to open the jar of jam inside the cardboard box and scoop the confections into the mouths of their children or the nearby infirm refugees, usually elderly. On 2/6/14, UNWRA also started a polio vaccination program, its first in Yarmouk and which is urgently needed by thousands of trapped camp residents. Ten thousand dosages of polio vaccines are being allowed into the camp with vaccinations currently underway for the second day running.
In addition to the so far paltry amount of food allowed into the camp, approximately 1,600 people have been allowed to leave Yarmouk for medical treatment. Young Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) volunteers, wearing shirts with large Red Crosses can be seen trickling out from the besieged camp this morning. Invariably holding the hands, arms, or shoulders of those who could walk the 50 yards to waiting ambulances that will evacuate and transport these patients, suffering the effects of starvation including muscle atrophy and dehydration. Most will be taken to the PCRS Jaffa hospital two kilometers away. Others are being transferred to Syrian government hospitals in Mazah, in central Damascus, including al-Mujtahed, al-Muwasat, al-Tawleed and children’s hospital.
This observer mingled for a couple of hours among the approximately 250 family members of trapped refugees, many of whom appear daily outside the only exit from Yarmouk camp, hoping that a relative might be allowed to leave. One elderly lady, maybe in her late sixties, explained to this observer that every day for the past seven months, i.e. since the tight siege of Yarmouk began last June, she has stood in the same location waiting for her son Mahmoud to come to her from inside besieged Yarmouk. She has no idea if he is alive but she explained to me that she believes that God will deliver him safely to her.
A contrasting view of Divine deliverance was articulated by a lovely young mother who had just exited Yarmouk with her two toddlers who looked, as she did, to be in fairly bad shape and in need of immediate hospitalization. A former English literature student, the lady, whose family is from Haifa, Occupied Palestine, explained to this observer that she no longer has any belief in God.
Lowering her voice, so as not to offend the elderly believer waiting for her son, she began to explain about her experience trapped inside Yarmouk:
“For the past more than five months I have sold my body for one hour to whoever would give me a kilo of rice which sometimes costs as much as 14,000 s.p. (close to $ 100). I was proud to be a whore for these terrorists in order to keep my parents alive and who are still trapped and I also prevented complete starvation of my children.” She continued, “God did not help me and my family but I promise if I live and ever see one of those dogs I will kill him and he can learn if his God exists or not. None existed for me!” Two young lady volunteers from the PRCS held her, still sobbing, as she and her little ones made their way out to a waiting PRCS ambulance.
Given the 18,000 in need of urgent aid this cold winter morning inside Yarmouk camp, what has been allowed in so far has been a mere trickle, rather minor in a sense. But major for those getting the live saving food parcels and urgently required medical treatment.
As this observer waits to return to Yarmouk this morning, and for a promised and expensive taxi to hopefully arrive, for few cabs want to go anywhere near Yarmouk camp these days and charge five times the normal fare if they do, ones imagines that as has been the case this past week, there will be large crowds and long lines of people waiting and sometimes jostling for food. This attests to the enormous humanitarian need and to the desperation of thousands of civilians, Palestinian and Syrian, being starved and used as a weapon of war and as human shields.
After months of false starts toward reaching an agreement among fourteen Palestinian factions here in Damascus, as well as a green light from the Syrian government, and more than a dozen rebel militias, each with disparate agendas, this week’s agreement, and the 8th since early December, may or may not hold. And it may not end the carnage that criminally took 6000 more lives just last month.
If it does succeed, it will be one more half-step, to use UN Envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi Geneva II term, toward lifting the siege of Yarmouk camp which achievement might then augur well for more widespread humanitarian efforts to achieve a nationwide ceasefire as a full step toward serious reconciliation work in order to save this great country.
Franklin Lamb is a visiting Professor of International Law at the Faculty of Law, Damascus University and volunteers with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com). He can be reached c/o firstname.lastname@example.org.