March 20, 2014
By Alex Simon and Mohammad Ali al-Haj Ali
AMMAN: A “massive throng” of desperate civilians waiting to receive supplies forced United Nations aid workers to abort its distribution of food parcels in southern Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp Wednesday, marking the latest setback for humanitarian assistance in a neighborhood where nearly 20,000 residents live on the brink of starvation despite a ceasefire earlier this year.
“Chaotic scenes rendered safe distribution impossible,” said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for Palestinian refugees, in a public statement Wednesday. “UNRWA was forced to pull out.”
Wednesday’s debacle followed UNRWA’s successful delivery of 465 food parcels on Tuesday, the first aid to reach the camp since fresh violence broke out nearly three weeks ago.
The parcels, Gunness insisted, are not a long-term solution. Each package represents the bare minimum required for survival.
“An UNRWA food parcel is very, very basic,” he told Syria Direct Wednesday. “We’re talking about pasta, canned beef, some beans, some sugar, some oil. I hope it will stave off malnutrition, but it’s not something you’d want people to subsist on for too long.”
UNRWA, the UN agency charged with managing Palestinian refugee affairs throughout the Middle East, is the main international body responsible for administering Yarmouk, which was established in 1957 to house Palestinians who fled to Syria following the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
Prior to the war, the camp was home to roughly 160,000 total residents, of whom some 30-40 percent were Syrians. Three years of fighting have reduced the sprawling mini-city to 18,000 Palestinians and an unknown number of Syrian civilians. UNRWA estimates that the conflict has displaced at least 70 percent of the Palestinian refugee population in Syria.
These residents have endured eight months under a suffocating government blockade, with some 130 starving to death as many more survive by eating grass and leaves.
Tentative ceasefires between Yarmouk’s pro- and anti-Assad militias have allowed limited relief, with UNRWA managing to distribute a total of 8,173 parcels since January 18.
Tuesday’s distribution was a breakthrough after 17 days with no aid reaching the camp, but Yarmouk residents warn that aid has fallen far short of the level of need inside the camp.
“There are between 5,500 and 6,000 families in Yarmouk—the amount of aid that has been delivered isn’t enough for half of them,” Farouk a-Rafaai, a Yarmouk-based activist, told Syria Direct Wednesday.
UNRWA estimates that each food parcel can feed an average family of five to eight people for as long as ten days. Using the figure of roughly 20,000 Syrian and Palestinian residents, the 8,173 parcels that UNRWA has delivered amount to approximately 25 days worth of food per individual over a two-month period.
For the past several months, Syrians and Palestinians have warned of Yarmouk’s dwindling food supply; a video from January shows residents frantically shouting, “we don’t have enough for a kilo of rice, we don’t have enough for a kilo of lentils. We want to eat and drink in a safe place.”
Truce under fire
Armed factions inside the camp have reached two ceasefires this year, one in January and another in February. Proponents have touted the agreements as an opportunity to ease Yarmouk’s catastrophic humanitarian conditions, but a-Rafaai warned that aid distribution remains subject to Damascus’s whims.
“The truce was never implemented to begin with,” he said, echoing widespread opposition claims that the Syrian government and loyalist militias have flouted the February ceasefire’s conditions.
“The shelling hasn’t stopped,” said Local Council chief Abu Abdallilah in comments to pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl in late February. “Yesterday three shells fell near my house, and shrapnel scattered over my home.”
Regime forces and loyalist militias also continue to prevent desperate citizens from exiting the camp.
On March 2, fighters from Jabhat a-Nusra, who had previously left Yarmouk under the ceasefire’s terms, announced that they would reenter the camp in response to the regime’s having “failed to abide by even one term of the truce,” charging that pro-Assad militias had refused to withdraw from agreed upon areas and arrested dozens of civilians as they waited to receive aid.
Jabhat a-Nusra’s return touched off a period of renewed hostilities that stymied UNRWA’s distribution efforts for more than two weeks between February 28 and Tuesday’s delivery.
“Nobody is talking about a truce anymore,” said Yarmouk-based activist Mohammad a-Nasr in comments to Syria Direct last week. “Yarmouk is under daily bombardment and clashes break out intermittently.”
Sporadic violence has continued into this week, with pro-opposition Sham News Network reporting shelling in the camp on Tuesday afternoon, as UNRWA successfully completed a single day of aid delivery before chaos on Wednesday forced the humanitarian team to withdraw.
Yarmouk’s continuing plight underscores the challenge of enforcing United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, which the body unanimously adopted last month demanding improved humanitarian access inside Syria.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is due to deliver a monthly progress report on Resolution 2139 in the coming week. The resolution declares the Security Council’s “intent to take ‘further steps’ in the case of non-compliance,” but does not specify what such steps might entail.
Meanwhile, Yarmouk’s residents can do little more than wait and hope that the Syrian government and factions inside the camp allow UNRWA to continue its distribution efforts.
“If something isn’t done to stop this human tragedy, it could transform into genocide by hunger,” warned a-Rafaai, the Yarmouk activist.
“Southern Damascus is dying.”
For more from Syria Direct, like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter. Alex Simon tweets from @AlexGSimon; Mohammad Ali al-Haj Ali tweets from @malhajali831.
Photos courtesy of Rami a-Sayyed for UNRWA.