A Syrian Army soldier waves the government flag in Yarmouk camp on May 22. Louai Beshara/AFP.
AMMAN: For four days in April, Muawiya Muhammad’s elderly father hid himself between a bed frame and a cupboard as the Syrian government pummelled the then-besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in south Damascus.
“[My father] told me later that the destruction was so massive from the beginning that he couldn’t even leave the building or walk through the streets,” the Yarmouk-born physician and activist, who evacuated from south Damascus to northwestern Idlib province in May, tells Syria Direct. “So he stayed in the bedroom, [sheltering] between the bed and the closet.”
Syrian pro-government forces, including a joint force of Syrian and Palestinian militias, launched a punishing military offensive in April on Islamic State (IS) positions in Yarmouk—as well as the neighboring, encircled south Damascus suburbs of Hay al-Qadam and Hajar al-Aswad.
After several days of bombardment, Muhammad’s father ultimately managed to escape. But not everyone was able to flee Yarmouk.
Residents estimate that dozens of bodies—by some counts, many more—were buried under rubble and abandoned after the Syrian government and its allies retook Yarmouk and neighboring suburbs in May.
But with bodies still trapped under the bombed-out buildings that make up what was once Syria’s largest Palestinian community, refugees from the camp are still coming to terms with a level of devastation that means return and reconstruction may be a long time coming.
‘No time to leave’
Founded in 1957 to host Palestinian refugees who fled the towns and villages of northern Palestine, Yarmouk camp quickly morphed into a bustling suburb of Damascus that was, by 2011, home to an estimated 160,000 Palestinians. Those residents ended up suffering some of the worst impacts of Syria’s seven-year conflict.
Syrian Air Force jets first bombarded Yarmouk in December 2012 amid advances by rebel groups in nearby Damascus suburbs. Rebel forces stormed the camp the following day. A crippling siege imposed by the Syrian government and its allies in mid-2013 led to at least 194 deaths—either from starvation or lack of access to basic medical supplies—before the majority of Yarmouk fell to IS control in April 2015.
IS imposed brutal restrictions on civilians and carried out executions of community activists and relief workers it accused of communicating with rebel groups or government-linked reconciliation officials, as well as plotting dissent.
Following the Syrian government’s recapture of nearby rebel stronghold East Ghouta earlier this year, the south Damascus suburbs remained the only area of the capital still outside of government control. Rumors of an impending deal to evacuate IS fighters to the Badia desert region of Syria’s southern Suwayda province suddenly collapsed, and pro-government tanks moved in.
The offensive came quick, leaving civilians—many of them elderly Palestinians either unwilling or unable to abandon their homes—stranded.
“The attack was sudden. People had no time [to leave],” says Muhammad, adding that most residents resorted to hiding out in poorly equipped basements below apartment buildings rather than purpose-built shelters. Stories emerged from survivors of building collapses, while voice messages distributed by fleeing Palestinians suggested hundreds were trapped inside.
Conflict monitors and local activists counted at least 20 civilians who ultimately died in the pro-government offensive to retake Yarmouk.
However, according to one Palestinian civil society source in Damascus, with knowledge of grass-roots relief efforts during the offensive, the bodies of as many as 200 people could still be buried in the rubble inside Yarmouk. His estimate includes the reported deaths.
“There were about 200 bodies—most of them civilians,” said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “None of those bodies have been removed, and until now there has been no plan to remove them.”
Luoay, a Syrian Arab Red Crescent volunteer from the camp who requested a pseudonym because of the sensitivity of the issue, describes “streets filled with two-meter-high piles of rubble, and bodies underneath.”
“The smell of the bodies has become a part of our daily lives,” he tells Syria Direct from a Damascus suburb neighbouring Yarmouk.
‘No action on the ground’
Empty of civilians since the end of the offensive, little has changed in Yarmouk. Rumors of reconstruction projects float around pro-opposition Facebook pages, while Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officials make televised visits to the camp. And yet much of Yarmouk is in ruins, with housing and infrastructure in tatters.
Last month, a delegation from the PLO—including the PLO’s chief Syria representative Anwar Abdel Hadi—visited Yarmouk to pay their respects to the graves of former Palestinian fighters buried in the camp. IS militants had reportedly vandalized their gravestones and used the cemetery for tunnelling trenches towards frontlines.
Abdel Hadi told AFP following the end of the pro-government offensive in May that in Yarmouk, the “next step after liberation” from IS would see government authorities “combing the area, removing rubble and assessing the damage to rebuild and bring infrastructure back so civilians can return.”
But Wessam Sebaneh, director of the Jafra Foundation, a Palestinian-Syrian relief organization that services Palestinian-Syrian communities inside and outside Syria, tells Syria Direct there has been “no change in Yarmouk’s situation” since May.
“It’s still considered a military zone,” Sebaneh tells Syria Direct from Jafra’s Beirut office. “There has been no activity inside the camp to remove rubble or develop the infrastructure… [and] no action on the ground.”
The Palestinian civil society source in Damascus also suggested infrastructure inside the camp had been decimated. “There is no infrastructure,” the source said. “No water supply, no electricity, no sewage system.”
Civilians who wish to visit Yarmouk or check on their former homes, Sebaneh explains, must apply for security clearance to enter the camp, and must leave again the same day.
Yarmouk’s residents are among the majority of Palestinian refugees inside Syria who have been internally displaced, many of them more than once, according to UNRWA. An estimated 100,000 Palestinian refugees from Syria have meanwhile fled the country since the beginning of Syria’s uprising—including approximately 33,000 to Lebanon and 17,000 to Jordan—with much of the remainder now believed to have sought refuge in Europe.
Even so, there are growing talks of returns—in Damascus and beyond.
According to one PLO source with knowledge of the matter, the organization is preparing to offer $1,000 to each Palestinian-Syrian family that voluntarily returns to Syria from neighbouring countries, including Lebanon. The cash rewards would be the first formalized effort for returning Palestinian refugees to Syria, despite a months-long push by Lebanese authorities for the return of Syrian refugees. Given the legal restrictions faced by Palestinian-Syrians, who are effectively stateless, there are doubts about whether or not returns would be truly voluntary.
While the PLO source maintained that returns would “only be voluntary,” a UN source told Syria Direct that there are currently “no formal safeguards regarding the protection of [Palestinian] refugees upon return.”
“Important guarantees for safe and dignified returns are not yet in place,” the UN source added.
A representative from the Palestinian Embassy in Damascus did not respond to a request for comment before publication of this report.
But for many Palestinians who have been internally displaced in Damascus for several years, the opportunity to finally return—albeit for a day—has been bittersweet.
When former Yarmouk resident Abu Muhammad recently received permission for his own, temporary, return to the camp to survey the destruction, he found one of his two homes “stripped, with no electricity.” The other had been flattened to the ground. Nearby hospitals were also reduced to rubble, he says, with “only the skeleton remaining” on one.
“We used to dream of re-entering Yarmouk,” Abu Muhammad tells Syria Direct from his newfound home in Damascus.
But now, he says all he can think about is the “sadness” of his former neighborhood’s near complete destruction—and the stench of his neighbor’s bodies left uncollected beneath the rubble.
“There’s the smell of death and blood everywhere,” he says.
This report is part of Syria’s month-long coverage of former Islamic State-held territories in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.