Yarmouk update: Nusra's apparent return complicates UNRWA's hopes for food program

 

McClatchy Washington Bureau

The news is bad out of Yarmouk, the strategic Damascus neighborhood that for a brief while seemed to offer proof that humanitarian aid to a civilian population could be carried out in spite of the ongoing Syrian civil war. Turns out optimism was misplaced. The deal between rebels and supporters of Bashar Assad to let aid be distributed appears to have fallen apart.

What went wrong? From this distance it’s hard to know, and officials from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which has been trying to distribute food to the 18,000 or so civilians still living in Yarmouk, don’t want to say, if they know.

But nearly every day since the deal was announced Feb. 18 has brought one downcast update after another from UNRWA’s spokesman, Chris Gunness: “There was no distribution of food or humanitarian assistance today in the Yarmouk,” he wrote on Feb. 20. “No UNRWA food distribution took place in Yarmouk today,” was the wording on the 21st. The 22nd brought this variation, “There were no UNRWA food distributions in Yarmouk today,” followed on the 23rd with,” There was no UNRWA food distribution in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus today.” The news was similar on Feb. 25 and 28, despite a three-day visit by UNRWA Commissioner General Filippo Grandi to Damascus, which brought promises that the situation would improve. The first three days of March have brought the same dismal news.

The only breaks in this chain came on Feb. 19, and then again Feb. 26 and 27. But those days were hardly the same as the heady ones between Jan 30 and Feb. 7 when UNRWA distributed 6,300 56-pound boxes of food in what appeared to have become a routine. Then fighting overnight on Feb. 7 and 8 shut the program down.

Then came the deal, the exact details of which have not been revealed. The only information came from Iran's Fars news agency, which reported on Feb. 18 that Nusra had pulled out. Food aid was expected to start soon.

And it did, on Feb. 19. But the resumption was chaotic. Crowds of hungry residents besieged the distribution point, forcing a halt for three hours while order was restored. Only 280 boxes were handed out, and then came a week without any distribution. Still, there was optimism: Yarmouk's residents loudly demanded a better system of distribution and a return to the days when they could come and go as they pleased in a neighborhood that began as a refugee camp but grew into an urban home for 160,000 Palestinians and Syrians. Even when distribution again stopped.

But it resumed again on Feb. 26, and things seemed to be on their way to a resolution. UNRWA passed out 450 boxes even though its crews had gotten a late start, 2 p.m. But instead of stopping at around 5 p.m., as had become the norm when the sun went down, the distribution went on until 7:45 at night – no doubt partly because UNRWA for the first time was in its own building, the Tabgha School, nearly a mile inside the camp. The crowds were enormous, as an UNRWA released photo showed, but orderly. “Critically,” Gunness wrote, “ UNRWA staff were permitted to manage the distribution process in its entirety, without the involvement of third parties.”

Feb. 27 – last Thursday -- was the last day food would get handed out, however, despite the optimism of the day before. Here’s how Gunness reported the day’s events: “UNRWA distributed only 75 food parcels and 200 packages of bread in Yarmouk today, after access was granted at 15:30. At 17:00 the UNRWA team was forced to withdraw following sounds of gunfire in the vicinity of the Tabgha School distribution point.”

Every day since apparently there has been fighting in the northern part of the district. The peace agreement apparently has fallen apart. Nusra, according to some reports, has returned to the area, and pro-government forces are apparently fighting to prevent them from re-establishing themselves.

One can only speculate about why Nusra came back. Maybe its leaders realized that their pullout could be seen as a victory for the government. Maybe they simply couldn’t give up an area that is strategic to the control of southern Damascus. But whatever the reason, Nusra has returned, and the optimism that life could return to normal in Yarmouk appears to have vanished.

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

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