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Armed Militants Retake Syria's Desperate Refugee Camp

While the world has been watching Venezuela and Ukraine, a horrific situation has worsened for 18,000 Palestinians in Yarmouk camp.
March 7, 2014, 1:00pm
Photo by Niraz Saied

The world was horrified by a photograph of refugees lining up for aid in the destroyed Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria at the end of February. Since then attention has turned to events in Ukraine and Venezuela, but Yarmouk remains a desolate purgatory. The only thing left for the estimated 18,000 starving Palestinians still trapped in the camp to do is wait.

"We waited for the siege to end. We waited for the (relief) baskets to come. We waited for the world to notice us. All we do is wait and die," one refugee told VICE News.

And that grim situation has just got worse. A brief ceasefire from the 14-month-long siege of Yarmouk — imposed by the Syrian regime in an attempt to starve out opposition militants — was secured by a fragile truce in late January. Then, last weekend, the fighters flooded back into the camp. The Syrian Army may invade next.

An estimated 18,000 Palestinians are in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria. Photo by Niraz Saied.

Starving camp residents are enduring increasingly desperate conditions. Photo by Niraz Saied.

Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra re-entered Yarmouk on Sunday along with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Free Syrian Army-affiliated Aknaf Bait al Makdes. The return of the fighters signals an end to the deal and to the slim hopes of people inside the camp. Al Nusra and ISIS both released statements announcing their return, and this has been independently verified by Yarmouk residents. ISIS is only present in the camp in very small numbers.

The brief withdrawal of the fighters from Yarmouk did little to ease the immense suffering brought on by the siege which has been, at least partially, imposed by the Assad regime since December 2012.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continued to face obstacles delivering aid, with relief often delayed for days at a time even after the militants had left. The little aid that did enter was never enough. In reality, the siege was never really lifted. Yarmouk has been starving all along. It is only the world’s interest that has fluctuated.

In reality, the brief ceasefire didn't improve conditions for Yarmouk's starving residents. Photo by Niraz Saied.

UNRWA has struggled to get aid through the siege imposed by Assad's regime. Photo by Niraz Saied.

The truce came with its own set of new problems. "We were humiliated every day," a resident who asked to be referred to as Abo al Majd told VICE News "It reached a point when some of us really began be in the mindset of either we fight or die. We are being left to die."

"They thought the siege would be finished because the fighters had left! But the situation of the camp didn't change very much. There is no medicine, very little food. Everyone is always searching for food," al Majd continued. "Those with money can afford to buy from the black-market. For us normal people, we were living on herb soups, we became very creative."

One resident of the refugee camp told VICE News: "All we do is wait and die."

Yarmouk residents are now preparing for an onslaught from Assad's regime.

The truce also saw the arrest of more than 25 Yarmouk students in February. While trying to leave the camp, they were detained by the regime-allied Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC). They have yet to be heard from.

These grievances are thought to have played a role in the return of the opposition groups into the camp. The fighters told activists inside the camp this, although it is unlikely that their return was grounded solely in altruism.

It was during UNRWA's last attempt at delivering aid last Sunday that al Nusra and al Makdes fighters entered Yarmouk and began to shoot into the air. The UNRWA representatives immediately withdrew.

Those who can't afford the black market are subsisting on "herb soup."

The PFLP-GC responded by immediately positioning around 150 fighters on the Western outskirts of the camp. Clashes soon broke out between the opposition fighters and the Syria-aligned forces.According to civilians inside the camp who spoke to VICE News, members of al Nusra explained that as the Palestine Liberation Organization and other Palestinian factions had been unable to secure an acceptable agreement, they would now lead negotiations with the Syrian regime. The fighters claim that their capacity as armed militants would better equip them to carve out a new deal.

A local activist who attended a meeting with representatives of the various armed groups explained that a list of demands had been laid out for the regime. These included the entry of flour and fuel into the camp, the reopening of Yarmouk's hospitals, the release of all Palestinian detainees, and the immediate rebuilding of demolished infrastructure. The fighters have said that they will only withdraw from the camp when those demands have been met.

Last weekend, the fighters flooded back into the camp. The Syrian Army may invade next.

In response, the Syrian regime has warned that if the armed groups do not evacuate the camp, their forces will invade. According to activists, the fighters have started to prepare themselves for a clash with the regime.

"Most people know that this will not end well," al Majd explains. "No one has any hope, it has all left the camp."

The tattered residents remaining in Yarmouk are terrified at what many now believe might be an impending massacre.

But the only thing they can do, once again, is wait.

Nidal Bitari also contributed to this piece.

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