For weeks, Islamic State militants, aided by Al Nusra Front, waged a street war in Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp against Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, an anti-governmental battalion. But snipers targeted anything that moved. The Syrian government also launched aerial attacks targeting civilian areas, including dropping about 50 barrel bombs, two of them on Palestinian Hospital this month. Reports that Islamic State has left Yarmouk are inaccurate; it has merely redistributed its forces in the camp and Al Nusra also remains. The residents’ situation is still dire.
Although the Islamic State attacks started April 1, the Assad regime first sealed off Yarmouk from the outside world in 2013. This 2-year-long siege made me feel old before my time. I was born in Yarmouk in 1989 and lived there until recently, when I had to leave for my safety.
Yarmouk is where more than 180,000 Palestinians once lived, made refugees in 1948 by the creation of Israel. All but 14,000 to 15,000 have now fled. Not allowed to return home to land and homes taken from us decades ago, those who remain are trapped and are struggling desperately to stave off the Islamic State assault.
The Syrian government has declared the camp a war zone and overseen the systematic destruction of our heritage, houses and future. It has prevented aid deliveries, which means no medical supplies for the wounded, no food for the survivors; water was cut off in September. By 2014, at least 200 camp residents had died, most of starvation, as reported by Amnesty International.
“I am thirsty — we haven’t had water for some days now. After all this, will we die from water scarcity?” was the message a friend, trapped in a different part of Yarmouk, texted me recently.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency wrote this monththat the “people are starving and terrified” in Yarmouk. It called on “the international community, including the United Nations Security Council, to take swift political action to ensure that all civilians are protected in accordance with the U.N. charter and international law. Failure to do so could lead to the gravest and most appalling of consequences for civilians in Yarmouk.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Yarmouk “the deepest circle of hell” in Syria. It is, he said, “beginning to resemble a death camp.”
Before the Islamic State attacks, even amid all the violence and deprivation forced on us by the Assad regime, my friends and I had managed to create a semblance of a livable existence. We planted food and distributed it to our neighbors. We established courses on citizenship and human rights, courses on first aid, a course on project management, planning and implementation. We also established psycho-social support projects for children. The Islamic State militants, however, had no interest in our initiatives. They destroyed our media office and those of relief organizations in Yarmouk.
What is next for us?
More than half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria yearn to return home to Palestine. Yet that option — that right — is not raised in the West. Jewish immigration is allowed all over the world, but Palestinian refugees are not allowed home. “Born Palestinian, Born Black,” as Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad says. We are, in Western eyes, inferior.
Our cause is rhetorically deemed sacred to the Syrians who wield power, as well as to the Arab kings and presidents who praise it. But they do little or nothing to reverse our limited rights and dispossession. No neighboring Arab country will open its doors to Palestinian refugees, even as they allow in Syrians.
We used to chant, “The Syrians and the Palestinians are one,” and the Syrians who have helped shelter our displaced are our brothers. Yet we Palestinians face an even greater uncertainty than our Syrian friends. We need more than temporary shelter — after all, that is what Yarmouk was supposed to be.
In our greatest hour of need in 66 years, we need to return home, to Palestine. And if that is too much for the international community to bear, we need to be evacuated to a place where we can live with both dignity and rights, and without fear of yet another Nakba, another catastrophic dispossession.
Jamal is a Palestinian Syrian human rights activist who was recently displaced from Yarmouk after an Islamic State attack on the camp. His full name is withheld to protect his safety.