Thousands starving on outskirts of Damascus; situation ‘unprecedented in living memory,’ U.N. says


Residents wait to receive food aid distributed by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) at the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on Jan. 31, 2014. (UNRWA via Reuters)

Months ago, in times better than these, the only thing that could be obtained at the markets of Yarmouk in southern Damascus was a “green starch” that could be fried and eaten. One kilogram (2.2 pounds) of rice cost between $70 and $100. Boys scurried in search of dandelions and cactus leaves. A common meal included a bowl of water and spice. Some drank dog milk. Others ate fertilizer. Many had nothing at all.

And then, 12 days ago, after the Syrian authorities cut off food shipments into the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, everything became more dire.

More than 48 hours have now passed since the United Nations says food ran out for nearly 20,000 people dependent on aid in Yarmouk, which has suffered some of the worst fighting in the Syrian war. Today the community, which sits on the outskirts of Damascus, is little more than a warren of bombed-out buildings long on rubble and short on everything else.

“It is unprecedented in living memory for a [U.N.]-assisted population to be subject to abject desperation in this way and the sheer humanitarian facts cry out for a response,” United Nations Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness told London’s Observer.

“Without that, the humanity of all of us must be seriously questioned. It is an affront to all of us that in a capital city of a [U.N.] member state, women are dying in childbirth for lack of medical care, there are incidents of malnutrition among infants and people are resorting to eating animal feed.”

While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad marked Easter, images of starvation and famine have washed across social media under the hashtag #letusthrough.

Yarmouk, a cluttered two-square-kilometer (about three-quarters of a square mile) spit of concrete and narrow streets, was established as a refugee camp in 1957. There were once few signs of squalor. In recent years, its housing areas teemed with beauty salons and Internet cafes. The Palestinians who accounted for most of its population had integrated so well that they’d gained spots in local government.

For years, it was held as a paragon of what a refugee camp could be, and in 2010, the BBC published a report on Yarmouk headlined, “Lure of the homeland fades for Palestinian refugees.” “I don’t know if I would leave everything and go and live [in my ancestral village] because I don’t know the place,” one Palestinian woman told the network. “I live here, my friends and my work are here, this is my world.”

In the summer of 2011, that world fell apart. Protests flared across Syria, which the Assad government tried to stamp out with violence. According to Amnesty International, the Palestinian refugees of Yarmouk tried to “avoid entanglement,” recognizing that they had obtained more stability and rights in Yarmouk than in most other host countries. “However … Yarmouk was inexorably drawn in.”

In December of 2012, the government bombed Yarmouk and reportedly killed 25 civilians in an attack that U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon described as a “matter of grave concern.” Soon, as many as 140,000 Palestinian refugees — and many more Syrians living in Yarmouk — fled their homes.

Some, however, couldn’t afford to flee, and the poorest and most vulnerable were left behind: the elderly, the children, the disabled.


A boy sitting in a wheelchair waits for food to be distributed in the besieged al-Yarmouk camp, south of Damascus on April 7, 2014. (Rame Alsayed/Reuters)

In those early days, food arrived in a trickle. “But as resistance continued,” the aid organization reported, the Syrian forces progressively “tightened their noose around Yarmouk.” Then, in July 2013, the government cut off all air traffic and choked off the flow of food, medicines and supplies. Few were allowed to leave the camp.

Some have managed to get out. Reported the Guardian:

Abu Issa, 60, had three sons, who all tried to get out. He has no idea if they made it or not. He knows they made a deal with a people smuggler but heard they were arrested at the first checkpoint. They had hoped to escape across the border and out of Syria. Abu lives on grass and on the hope that his sons are still alive somewhere.

There have been fleeting moments of hope for the community. Last January, a tenuous agreement between warring factions allowed in some food.  “I eat anything I can get my hands on,” one man told aid workers in February. “I eat on average one meal every 30 hours. Either we have to go to the small field areas overlooked by snipers, looking for herbs, or group together to buy a kilo of rice or lentils for $70. But we cannot afford to do this each day.”

Today, even money can’t buy food.

Two weeks ago, that fragile agreement of January fell apart. “Soon people will have absolutely no food,” U.N. spokesman Gunness tweeted.

And then, this weekend, he declared that the “U.N. food has run out in Yarmouk. These people need feeding.”

But as of Monday morning, no one could meet that need.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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