News

What It's Like to Be in a Town Besieged by ISIS and the Syrian Regime

"People won't leave their houses because they are afraid of snipers."

by Patrick Hilsman
Apr 21 2016, 6:20pm

A 2014 photo of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, Syria. The situation has only gotten worse since. (UNRWA via AP, File)

For years now, a humanitarian disaster has been playing out in Yarmouk, a neighborhood of Damascus, Syria, that historically served as a home to Palestinian refugees. The area was first besieged by Assad regime forces in 2013, and has experienced food and water shortages ever since. Two years ago, an image of thousands of locals lining up to receive rations became one of the most iconic photos in the five years of civil war in Syria.

But the strategic location of the neighborhood, close as it is to the regime-controlled heart of Damascus, means it's likely to be hotly contested so long as the war is on. The camp was first overrun by ISIS about a year ago, with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front maintaining control of some sections and a small anti-ISIS Palestinianian group called The Sons of Yarmouk also enjoying a limited presence. In the last few weeks, fighting broke out between fractured elements of Nusra, and ISIS took advantage of the fissure with a new offensive. Nearly 10,000 civilians remain trapped there, and since April 7, many have perished, human rights observers say. (On Saturday, a UN official said residents hadn't received food or water for over a week.)

"While diplomatic talks are vital to a peaceful end to the violence in Syria, the international community must do more to save lives now," says Natasha Hall, Middle East and North Africa program officer for the humanitarian group Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC) and author of a recent report on protecting Syrian civilians. "In Yarmouk, an area of just a couple square kilometers, civilians are simultaneously suffering from a siege and further trapped by clashes between armed groups including ISIS and the regime shelling just blocks away."

Early Wednesday local time, Hall—who speaks Arabic and has been in contact with residents—got in touch with a 54-year-old resident of the camp named Issam via social media, and was able to transmit some questions of mine, as well.

Here's what he had to say.

VICE: We're hearing reports of snipers shooting at civilians. Who are the snipers?
Issam: People won't leave their houses because they are afraid of snipers. Most of the snipers are from Daesh [ISIS] and the people killed by the snipers so far were killed by Daesh... The situation for civilians is really bad. They aren't leaving their houses and there are dead in the streets.

Is there any water left whatsoever?
There is very little water left and people are drinking contaminated water. Sometimes we are able to extract water from wells. Still no aid or potable water.

Is there any medical treatment available in the camp?
There is only one doctor but he is just a general practitioner and he is working on wounds. There are very few medical supplies.

Besides sniper rifles, what weapons are being used?
ISIS and the regime are using mortars and heavy artillery.

How many people have been wounded?
Three dead and four wounded to Daesh, two wounded from Sons of Yarmouk, one wounded from Nusra, this was all today [April 19]. No civilians wounded today. From the past [few] days, seven civilians injured and four killed, including three killed deliberately by Daesh in their homes.

Are people able to move around or even leave?
In the south, where there aren't [as many] clashes and snipers, people can still move and leave their houses.

What is the regime up to in the neighborhood?
The regime is shelling the northern part of the camp, areas where the Sons of Yarmouk and Nusra are... The regime isn't targeting ISIS [right now].

The UN is reporting that it has some limited access to Yalda, which is next to Yarmouk. Are people able to reach Yalda from Yarmouk to get supplies?
Daesh won't let people leave.

Can hospitals in Yarmouk take patients?
Palestine hospital is just being used for ISIS fighters, not civilians. They control the medicine. [Al]-Basel hospital has been destroyed.

For more information on work done by the Center for Civilians in Conflict, click here.

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