On 7th day of aid mission in Yarmouk, UNRWA begins polio vaccination program


McClatchy Washington Bureau

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency completed its seventh straight day of aid distribution in Damascus' Yarmouk refugee camp on Wednesday, a milestone after more than six months in which little food was allowed into the area. It also began a polio vaccination campaign that it hopes eventually will innoculate thousands of children there.

Before the aid began flowing, at least 36 people had starved to death or succumbed to illnesses that were exacerbated by hunger, a Yarmouk resident told McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay, who wrote about the camp's dire situation in this Jan. 18 story (Paragraph 8). The same resident told Landay that people were living on grass and cactus. There were reports some were eating cats.

UNRWA, which is the U.N. agency responsible for assisting Palestinian refugees, had been trying for months to get food and other assistance into Yarmouk, which began as a refugee camp but grew over time into an urban district that eventually became home to 160,000 people, including some Syrians. As fighting between rebel and government forces intensified over the past year, the population dwindled to the 18,000 or so believed to be living there now. Many of those might have left, too, but they were prevented from going, either by the rebel forces that held the camp or by fear they'd be shot by the pro-government forces ringing it.

UNRWA won't say whom it blames for stymieing relief efforts, expressing only gratitude that at least for now his agency's been able to continue providing food parcels for the past week to hundreds of residents daily. The parcels contain about 56 pounds of various foodstuffs, including lentils, luncheon meat, sugar and cooking oil, and are intended to feed five to eight people for 10 days. Over the seven days beginning last Thursday and ending today, UNRWA had passed out 5,701 parcels.

Chris Gunness, UNRWA's spokesman, has sent out an email most days updating reporters on the aid mission's progress. Based on those, the routine goes something like this: UNRWA's crew arrives at the northern Bateekah entrance to Yarmouk at mid morning and heads to a distribution point inside the camp. Hundreds of camp residents converge on the area, but are held at bay, away from the distribution center. Identification cards are checked, then one person per family is allowed to pick up the food parcel. The distribution continues until dusk, when the UNRWA crew withdraws. Friday, UNRWA was able to distribute 645 parcels, beginning at 11 a.m. and ending at 5:40 p.m.

Gunness didn't say how many people were innoculated against polio Friday -- polio has been a source worry since the World Health Organization reported an outbreak in Syria in November, the first in 14 years -- but he said UNRWA had been authorized to bring 10,000 vaccines into the camp. "This process has been completed without incident and the vaccination of thousands children in the camp is now underway," Gunness said in his Friday email. "We would like to thank all those who made this life saving development possible. It demonstrates that access to Yarmouk and all civilians in Syria can be sustained and that given the chance, the UN can make a real difference in the lives of real people - babies, children, women, the sick, the elderly, the dying -- who have endured unimaginable suffering because of this pitiless war."

The suffering is evident in the photographs UNRWA has distributed -- hundreds of people crowding streets, waiting to be vetted to pick up a food parcel or waiting for whichever family member has been sent to fetch it. It's winter and it's cold -- about 32 degrees Fahrenheit most days. The area is without services -- and Gunness said UNRWA has received "reports of people burning furniture and whatever wood they can forage" for warmth.

The inclement weather even has affected the food distribution. On Monday, pieces of a damaged building, dislodged by snow and wind, fell near the distribution site, in mid afternoon, Gunness reported, interrupting the distribution.

It's not hard to imagine that a high wind could make walking along Yarmouk's streets -- or waiting in line for food -- dangerous. In UNRWA's photos, the buildings look shredded. Pieces hang loose and every edifice seems to have taken the full brunt of combat. It's a reminder that should the civil war ever come to an end, the reconstruction needs will be massive. Some estimates say the bill could be more than $200 billion.

Who'll pay for that? The U.N. already has had trouble raising money for the immediate needs of refugees and displaced people. Amin Awad, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees' Syria refugee coordinator, noted the other day in an interview in Washington that the agency's current request for $6.5 billion in donations is already the largest the agency has ever sought, with no end in sight. "When we do this interview next year, I will tell you that that request is the largest," he said.

Email: mseibel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @markseibel

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