Over the past four years war has ravaged the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk. At no other time has the future looked so dismal for the community of refugees who have called it home. What was once a city filled with life has now become a world lost.The Palestine Refugee Camp of Yarmouk on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, was established in 1957 for those Palestinians driven from their homes during the creation of the State of Israel in 1948.
Between 1948 and the construction of Mukhayyam al-Yarmouk, thousands of Palestinians had become stateless refugees living in Syria with little more than a tent for protection. Disease had become rampant and there was very little, if any, access to health care for the dispossessed and displaced.
Over time, the refugees living in Yarmouk were able to build up communities, neighborhoods, gardens, parks, hospitals, and a flourishing garment district. At one point, Yarmouk was the third largest clothes shopping area in all of Syria. Yarmouk truly became a model for how a depressing refugee camp could be reinvented into a lively city filled with markets, happy school children, and beautiful flower-lined streets.
On evenings in late summer young couples could enjoy strolls through the city center as the sweet fragrance of jasmine hung low in the warm air.
Then came the war.
What had become a popular protest in Syria in the spring of 2011, with marches organized nationwide as unrest grew against Bashar Assad’s government, soon was met with violent suppression from the Syrian military. Revolutionary fervor swept the region as the Arab Spring movement toppled aging dictators from President Ben Ali in Tunisia to Mubarak in Egypt.
In Syria, Bashar Assad, heir to the presidency following his father Hafez’s death in 2000, had varying degrees of support from certain groups in the country. At the same time, there was much anger toward the Assad government from areas with high poverty.
Socio-economic policies initiated by Hafez Assad toward the end of his life had severely widened the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Bashar continued his father’s policies which emphasized the role of the service sector, families connected with the government, and the merchant classes.
By the spring of 2011, Syrians were facing steep prices at the markets on food and staples along with a deterioration of the overall quality of life. Many youth were unemployed and there was a defined point where a wave of rage was directed at the Assad regime.
Syria is a land of striking contrasts. It is on one hand an ancient civilization immortalized in the Bible, Greek texts, and historical accounts. Some of the most important monuments to human achievement have been created and still stand in Syria.
There are sweeping vistas, arid deserts, lush mountains, and beach-front cities. Tourism has been a driving force for the Syrian economy for hundreds of years, and some of the very best hospitality in the Middle East can be found among the Syrian people. There are dozens of coexisting religions, sects, and minority populations who ended up in Syria following unrest in their ancestral homelands. The most delicious pastries and savory rice dishes are made in Syrian kitchens, with variations on each recipe between each town.
Then there is the poverty, the Assad government’s documented history of human rights abuses, denial of full rights to minorities, and the continuous “foreigner” status of Palestinians and Kurds who have lived in Syria for generations.
After the eruption of massive protests on March 15, 2011, the protesters who were calling for democratic reforms, the release of political prisoners, and an end to decades of government corruption, were faced with a deadly response from the Assad military forces. As spring turned to summer, more civilians were killed and an organized response by the citizens was created with armed militias.
This is where things get confusing for non-Syrian experts.
There were defectors from the Assad military who joined with other militiamen to form the Free Syrian Army. Their stated goal was to topple Assad and disassemble the Syrian government. Eventually the Free Syrian Army (FSA) began receiving fortification and support from Turkey. Violent confrontations continued between the FSA and the Syrian military with hundreds of civilians killed in the process.
Assad’s military doubled down on their response to the insurgency and launched major offensives which included bombing civilian homes and resulted in more death and resentment against the government.
The Red Cross reported that by mid-July of 2012 more than 16,000 civilians had been killed and the ICRC declared the protracted conflict a civil war.
Enter Da’esh (the Islamic State)
Taking advantage of the chaos and in-fighting in the country, a group of Islamists claiming authority over the Islamic World, relocated numbers of their followers from Iraq into the Syrian city of Raqqa. In Raqqa, Da’esh established what they called a Caliphate and began imposing a strict version of Shari’a law on the inhabitants of the city. Many civilians were beheaded after being tried for trivial “sins” along with a wave of terror over the city which included revoking passports, forcing non-Muslims to convert, and human rights violations so vast that the United Nations has accused Da’esh of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Meanwhile in the Palestine refugee camp of Yarmouk, the citizens dwindled from nearly 150,000 before the war to approximately 20,000 in the winter of 2015. There are roughly 25,000 Palestinians from Yarmouk unaccounted for and presumed dead.
Throughout the civil war Yarmouk has seen extreme fighting between the FSA and the Syrian military forces. On April 1, 2015, Da’esh entered Yarmouk to resistance from Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis and the FSA, but by the 2nd of April, Da’esh had taken control of the majority of Yarmouk.
Prior to Da’esh taking over the city, over two hundred people had starved to death due to the inability for the U.N. to make food deliveries as the fighting was so intense.
This week I spoke with a native of Yarmouk who has fled and is living in a foreign country. His family remains in Yarmouk and the surrounding areas struggling to survive among the rubble of a world now gone.
Nassar Yasin’s experience in Yarmouk is a tale of terror, not unlike the historic accounts of other wars, but a human-made catastrophe taking place in 2015. What follows is Nassar’s experience in his own words:
Alexandra Halaby: Tell me about life in Yarmouk before the war.
Nassar Yasin: Yarmouk was a camp in name, but for us it was a beautiful city. We were proud of what we had accomplished and our people had produced many educated and religiously tolerant people. Many professors who teach at Damascus University are Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk. This was a place where we Palestinians arrived with nothing and in less than fifty years we built a thriving city, became doctors and engineers, were famous for our fashions and clothes shops. Now, nothing. Our city has been totally destroyed.
A.H.: When did the siege of Yarmouk begin to impact the people?
N.Y.: Almost immediately. In 2011, the cost of bread and other fresh foods was becoming so expensive that even well-off citizens were having a difficult time affording to feed their families. By 2013, there was no food to be bought. The water system to the city was disconnected. You may remember the famous images of women and children eating grass and mud, those pictures were from Yarmouk. For over two years now the people of Yarmouk have lived on less than 400 calories per day. This is why malnourishment and disease has become so severe. Most doctors have fled Yarmouk. In the city there is not even one dentist left. That may not seem like a major issue among the rest of this, but there is also an absence of pain medication. For anyone who is hungry, tired, and suffering from an abscessed tooth, well, you can imagine what life must be like.
A.H.: You mentioned there is no water. What are people doing to survive?
N.Y.: Some are rationing rainwater, others are collecting water from old abandoned wells. That water is unfit for consumption and is probably why there has been an outbreak of hepatitis recently. There has been absolutely no electricity in Yarmouk for over two years. Because of this, it is difficult to boil what water is found. Cooking is growing less of a concern as there is simply nothing to cook. The people of Yarmouk are waiting to die.
A.H.: With the absence of doctors and healthcare workers what are sick people doing?
N.Y.: Those with chronic illnesses like high blood pressure and diabetes require medication daily. Due to the disconnection of Yarmouk to the rest of the world there are no medications, so chronically ill patients have extremely high mortality rates. Some elderly with a number of medical issues have given up. Others who were previously disabled have to rely on the mercy of neighbors, who also have nothing for themselves.
A.H.: Have you spoken with refugees from the Naqba in 1948 who still live in Yarmouk?
N.Y.: Yes, there are still a few elderly Palestinian refugees who were forced from Palestine and wandered for years until they ended up in Yarmouk. They have told us to not get involved in the issues in Syria, the war and such, because they remember being forced from Palestine and do not want to see another forced removal. Unfortunately, the war came to Yarmouk despite our decision to remain out of the conflict. Now, Da’esh have arrived on the scene and what seemed like hell was just the first stage.
A.H.: Who is helping the people of Yarmouk?
N.Y. The only group who has continuously helped the people of Yarmouk is UNRWA. After all other aid groups left Yarmouk, UNRWA has continued to make deliveries of humanitarian aid. Many, including my friends and family, have become dependent entirely on UNRWA for survival. Sometimes UNRWA deliveries are not permitted due to limited access, which creates a panic among the people. Even the UNRWA deliveries are barely enough for survival, because everything has become extremely expensive. But, we still are grateful that UNRWA has not forgotten us. I always wonder why UNHCR doesn’t help us. Are we not refugees? UNRWA provides food, water, medicines, education, but couldn’t UNHCR help also? I have only known one person from Yarmouk who received help getting a visa to Ghana through UNHCR. That was only because his relative works for UNHCR in Lebanon. Because of the desperate situation many have risked their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. It is just an awful life for so many.
A.H.: How do you get in contact with your loved ones back in Yarmouk?
N.Y.: Communication is limited. Fortunately, many of my immediate family have found ways out of Yarmouk and have ended up spread out across Europe and North America. For my family and friends still in Yarmouk, I have a phone call every few months from someone who was able to use a cell phone of an aid worker. Since Da’esh have taken over Yarmouk, I have not heard from anyone there.
A.H. What do you think will happen to Yarmouk?
N.Y.: I don’t know. The bombs have destroyed nearly the entire city. Everything we ever knew has become a stranger. Streets I played on as a child are gone. Parks with trees and carefully tended flower gardens have been uprooted. The entire city is unsafe and death is everywhere. I remain hopeful that one day life will return to Yarmouk, but now it is just a dream.
*Nassar Yasin is a pseudonym used to protect the identity of the individual and his family. This interview was edited for context and clarity.