DAMASCUS, Syria -- The hatreds that have been unchained by Syria’s civil war are playing out in a brutal siege of Damascus’ Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp where civilians, including babies and the elderly, have starved to death, and others reportedly have been driven to eating cats.
The daily exchanges of gun- and shellfire pit not just the government against rebels, but also secular Palestinians against Islamist Palestinians in a reflection of the wider sectarian conflict that has ravaged Syria for nearly three years and bled into Iraq and Lebanon.
An estimated 16,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians have been trapped for months inside Yarmouk, with virtually no food, water, medicines or electricity, just yards from well-stocked stores, restaurants, clinics and parks packed with frolicking children and watchful parents.
The first delivery of humanitarian assistance in months reached the camp on Saturday under an accord between the rival Palestinian factions, but it was unclear if it was a one-time deal. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency, the Palestinian refugee aid organization that supplied the assistance, emphasized that the shipment on its own would do virtually nothing to alleviate hunger inside Yarmouk.
Chris Gunness, UNRWA’s spokesman, said the 200 packets would be enough to feed just 333 people for a month – a fraction of those inside the area. He pointedly told reporters in an email that that fact “puts today’s development into perspective.”
“People are eating grass, leaves, figs and seeds. We are also eating cactuses. We peel the outside, cut the pulp up like potatoes and boil it,” said a resident in a brief telephone conversation punctuated by explosions. He asked not to be identified for fear it would single him out as a target. “We haven’t seen any bread in seven months.”
People are so desperate, he said, that some have risked sneaking out to retrieve vegetables from small plots abutting Yarmouk, only to be killed by snipers.
At least 36 people, including infants, have starved to death or succumbed to illnesses exacerbated by hunger, he said. Many are also suffering diseases like tuberculosis and jaundice and some women have died in childbirth, he said. Other reports put the total number of deaths at 46 since October.
“Kids and especially old people are dying of hunger. Those who are sick are mostly children,” he said.
The privation is made worse, the resident said, because the rebels who control Yarmouk are religious extremists, some from groups the United States has declared to be terrorist organizations. People who challenge the rebels by demanding that they leave risk being detained or worse, he said.
“We are very tense because of the detentions, the beating of people just because they have a different opinion from those people,” the resident said.
Mahmoud Abu Mousa, 32, a law student who fled Yarmouk in June and has helped negotiate several evacuations of sick and wounded, confirmed reports that some residents have been eating cats.
“I was speaking to a 7-year-old boy on a cellphone recently and told him to pray to God for aid,” Mousa recounted. “The boy replied, ‘I will pray to God to die.’ Why, I asked him. ‘Because if I died, I will go to heaven and there’s food there,’ he said.”
Yarmouk is among a string of besieged Damascus suburbs that could be covered by proposals for the creation of local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors pushed by the United States and Russia in the run-up to an international conference that begins Wednesday in Switzerland, called to kick-start talks on ending the violence.
But the difficulty of providing aid to the besieged areas was made clear on Saturday with the UNRWA shipment. Gunness said the delivery came only after UNRWA insisted that the aid not go to rebel combatants inside.
“UNRWA laid down an express condition that the food parcels must be distributed exclusively to civilians in need of assistance,” he said. “UNRWA will review and carefully weigh the outcomes of today’s effort, particularly as regards the extent to which the food parcels reached civilians in need.”
Few people harbor much hope that international diplomacy will open the gates to regular aid shipments and a quick end to the siege.
However unrealistic it may sound, many Palestinians fervently believe that the siege is part of a secret plot by the United States, European powers and Israel to raze Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian settlement in Syria, and disperse its residents even further from their homeland.
“All of this shows that they are doing their best to destroy the idea of a Palestinian nation. They are doing this to us even in our own Arab homeland,” asserted Mousa, the law student.
Others give a more rational reason for fearing that the U.S.-Russia initiative could founder.
Even if Assad agrees to allow regular aid shipments into Yarmouk and other encircled areas, regime militias, rebels or war-profiteers operating on both sides could force relief convoys to turn around with a few well-placed gunshots or mortar rounds as has already happened on numerous occasions, said a knowledgeable aid expert.
The regime has blamed the rebels for sabotaging the deliveries. But the expert, who spoke with McClatchy only under the condition that neither he nor his organization be identified because of possible retribution, said unruly regime militias known as shabiha were responsible for most of the incidents in which Syrian Arab Red Crescent, U.N. and International Red Cross convoys have been fired on.
Many regime militiamen, who are locally recruited from Assad’s Alawite sect – an offshoot of Shiite Islam – or from other sympathetic groups, are bent on avenging the killings of family and friends at the rebels’ hands, he explained. Others are making money smuggling food to collaborators inside the encirclements, he continued.
As a result, he said, some shabiha chieftains have defied regime orders to allow aid through siege lines.
“When you are fighting wolves, you release your dogs. Now, they (the regime) need to put on the leash,” said the expert.
Those who’ve been helping Assad’s troops to encircle Yarmouk belong to a shabiha unit recruited from local members of secular Palestinian groups. They’re dominated by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which long has been close to the Assad government and based in Damascus. It was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in 1997 for a series of spectacular attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in the 1970s and 80s.
On the other side are militants from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip and also was listed by the United States as a terrorist group in 1997. They hold most of Yarmouk with Syrian and foreign extremists that includes the Nusra Front, an al Qaida affiliate, according to the aid expert, PFLP-GC officials and displaced residents.
Criminal gangs also are operating inside, they said.
Yarmouk began as a tent encampment for Palestinian refugees in 1957. Over time, Palestinians built homes, apartments, schools and hospitals, Syrian civilians moved in and the Syrian government incorporated the community as a Damascus suburb. It is still known as Yarmouk Camp.
Before the war, more than 137,000 people lived inside the nearly 1 square-mile area, which extends in a fan shape from its northern entrance at al Batika Circle. After the war erupted in mid-2011, the population swelled as Syrians displaced by fighting in other suburbs sought shelter there.
Civilians began fleeing when Islamist rebels and foreign fighters first entered Yarmouk on June 5, 2012, according to Abu Kifah, a local PFLP-GC official. Reinforcements arrived and clashes erupted on Dec. 16, 2012, between the Islamists and the secular Palestinians aligned with the Assad regime.
“For a year and seven months we managed to keep Yarmouk peaceful until some Palestinians helped the armed people enter,” said Assad al-Assad, a PFLP-GC spokesman.
Wafiq Mahmoud Hamed, 55, a taxi driver, escaped with his wife and five children in June. They are broke and surviving on charity handouts in a small apartment on the verge of Yarmouk, he said, expressing anger at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other leaders for ignoring their plight.
The rebels, he said, have imposed strict Islamic rule inside Yarmouk, forcing women to dress in long garments and requiring men to pray five times daily.
“We couldn’t take life there anymore. The armed people would go into people’s homes, break the walls and steal everything,” said Hamed, who referred to the Islamists as “the germs.”
The resident reached inside Yarmouk said that food is available on the black market at exorbitant prices out of reach of most people.
A kilogram (2.2 lbs) of lamb sells for about $40, while the same amount of rice – if it can be found –goes for $8 and a liter (1 quart) of gasoline used to power generators shared between several homes costs $4, he said.
He had little good to say about the armed groups operating inside the camp.
“The problem is that there are two kinds of opposition inside. There are the people who steal and who commit crimes and the others are the religious extremists,” he said.
“The civilians should be allowed out of this fight,” he said as the call ended. “We need the armed people to leave Yarmouk.”