March 24, 2014
Since January 18, a tentative ceasefire in southern Damascus’s Yarmouk refugee camp has allowed the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to deliver intermittent shipments of food and medical aid to roughly 20,000 Syrian and Palestinian civilians who have been subjected to a stifling regime blockade since July of last year.
As of this past Sunday, UNRWA had successfully delivered 9,373 food parcels to Yarmouk residents, falling far short of the level of need inside a neighborhood where some 130 have starved to death and many more have survived by eating grass.
Fresh clashes between pro- and anti-Assad factions inside the camp interrupted aid shipments for a period of more than two weeks earlier this month. UNRWA resumed its deliveries on March 18, but has continued to struggle with sporadic violence and chaotic scenes at the distribution site; on March 19, for instance, UNRWA’s team was forced to withdraw when “a massive throng” of desperate civilians “rendered safe distribution impossible.”
An iconic photo of civilians waiting to receive aid in Yarmouk refugee camp has received world wide attention.
Meanwhile, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon warned this weekend that the regime and opposition alike may be violating United Nations Security Council Resolution 2139, which calls for improved humanitarian access inside Syria. “People are looking at Yarmouk as a barometer of the parties’ intentions toward implementing that resolution,” says Chris Gunness, a Jerusalem-based UNRWA spokesman. He tells Syria Direct’s Alex Simon that the level of aid delivered to Yarmouk is a start, but that the camp’s residents continue to endure “enormous humanitarian deprivation” and that UNRWA’s bare-bones food parcels are only a temporary fix. “I hope it will stave off malnutrition,” he says, “but it’s not something you want people to subsist on for too long.”
Q: What was it that allowed UNRWA to get into Yarmouk to deliver aid on March 18 after 17 days without getting anything in?
I have to be perfectly honest and say I’m not sure anyone—particularly anyone in UNRWA—knows the answer to that question. We’ve all been asking what it was. Some people would say it’s the extraordinary amount of advocacy and world attention that has come with that iconic image that was taken on the first of January. That, I think, has focused minds on Yarmouk. And then I think since the passage unanimously of the Security Council Resolution  people are looking at Yarmouk as a barometer of the parties’ intentions toward implementing that resolution.
But to be honest, UNRWA is an implementing party. We’re not part of the discussion with the 14 factions that signed the ceasefire; we don’t guarantee it in any sense whatsoever, we’re not involved in the political negotiations. We’re a neutral, unarmed humanitarian organization. So it’s really impossible for us to know why it was that things came together and after more than two weeks we were suddenly allowed in yesterday. But that’s what happened and we have exploited the window of opportunity, and we’ll continue to exploit the window of opportunity even though we’re not fully clear why it’s actually opened.
Q: How important was the ceasefire agreement between parties inside Yarmouk in facilitating UNRWA’s deliveries?
It was clear when we got the green light to go in on the 18th of January we were getting that green light in order to support an agreement between the 14 parties on the ground. So our delivery was absolutely part and parcel of that deal. Interestingly, I think that the fact that we got so much in—there was a sustained period where we got in—was a sign that aid had opened up a certain amount of humanitarian space, which contributed to the firming up of the ceasefire. Of course, that didn’t last for long, but it did last for quite a few days.
Q: What led to the level of chaos that prevented aid delivery last Wednesday?
It’s very hard to say. There’s a lot of very frayed nerves, bad tempers, anger, grief—all the emotions that accompany wars. So it’s little surprising that things can very quickly get out of control, particularly against a backdrop of such enormous humanitarian deprivation; just a few thousand food parcels since mid-January for 20,000 people. Little wonder there’s chaos.
Q: Who would typically be organizing the aid recipients?
It’s the parties inside the camp once we get there, and it’s the Syrian authorities on the way there. So there’s a humanitarian corridor from our warehouse in Damascus to the last government checkpoint to the north entrance of Yarmouk. And then we enter a sort of no-man’s land in Rama Street in the north of Yarmouk, and on the other side of that it’s the factions within the camp who are organizing the crowds and making sure that the distributions happen in an orderly fashion. And, as happened today, that sometimes breaks down.
The team in Damascus is amazing—within minutes of getting this report that [the March 19 delivery] had gone badly wrong, I was also getting reports that they were busily preparing for [the next day’s] delivery.
Q: How do you determine who receives aid when there’s so much demand?
Basically, you produce an identity card and you get a food parcel. It’s almost as simple as that. We have refugees with registration cards inside the camp, but there are also ordinary Syrian civilians, and of course we don’t distinguish. But basically food is being given on the basis of need, and need is overwhelming. So people get as much as we can take them.
Q: What dictates how many parcels are delivered in a day?
Experience has shown that we can distribute a certain amount of parcels in daylight hours, and we take into the camp about that much, and we simply get through as much as we possibly can.
Q: Can you describe the food parcels UNRWA is delivering to Yarmouk residents?
An UNRWA food parcel feeds an average family of five to eight people for ten days, and we’ve got [9,000] in since January to 20,000 people. The other thing about an UNRWA food parcel is that it’s very, very basic—we’re talking about pasta, canned beef, some beans, some sugar and some oil. I hope it will stave off malnutrition, but it’s not something you want people to subsist on for too long.
Q: To what extent do you feel aid is being distributed equitably on the basis of need? Is it possible that armed groups are skewing the distribution efforts in favor of their supporters?
It’s really hard to say, because what you must understand is that we get in to just the very periphery of the camp, where we meet a large crowd in this no-man’s land; what happens on the other side is really hard for us to say, so it’s impossible for me to answer that question accurately. Suffice to say that we do have Palestinian colleagues who are working as closely as possible to make sure that the aid is equitably distributed. If we could get in hundreds and hundreds of parcels every day, this sort of question wouldn’t be such a burning issue because we’d be getting in as much as people need.
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