Yarmouk activist describes "atrocious" state of war-torn camp in Syria

26 February 2013

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Residents of Yarmouk camp trickle back after intense fighting between Syrian rebels and the army, December 2012.

(Carole Alfarah / Polaris/Newscom)

Only twenty months ago 38-year-old Palestinian refugee Mutawalli Abou Nasser gave up his teaching job and put his theater work on hold in order to deploy his intellectual skills to keep Damascus’ Yarmouk camp neutral but sympathetic to the winds of change that started blowing in Syria. Yet eight kilometers away from the center of Damascus, Yarmouk is sinking deeper and deeper into the conflict.

In the past, the return to his first home, Palestine, was Abou Nasser’s preoccupation. As a schoolteacher and a scriptwriter he used his classroom and theater to educate new generations on the history of Palestine, the occupation and advocate the right of return.

His second home, Yarmouk, took several blows from the wave of change and conflict that has swept Syria since 2011. Abou Nasser became involved in local organizing and support for the Syrian people: through media, relief work and community empowerment.

Since Israel’s occupation of Palestine in 1948, many intellectuals, businessmen and craftspeople forced out of their country fled to Syria and established themselves in Yarmouk. The camp was established in 1957 and is today a large urban quarter housing 400,000 residents and the largest population center for Palestinian refugees in Syria.

Palestinians shaped the camp into a vibrant hub for commerce, arts, business and politics. The camp was known as a safe haven for political fugitives and for the organization of underground political movements who had a tense relationship with the Syrian regime. Another specific feature of Yarmouk was the influence of its Palestinian cultural scene that attracted many Syrians into the camp. Yarmouk did not merely remain as a camp or a shanty town but it flourished to become a small city with a vibrant Palestinian scene.

Today, almost two years after Syrians took to the streets in protest against the regime, the camp is caught up in a war between Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebel forces and the Syrian government security forces. Of the 135,000 Palestinians who lived inside the camp, only 40,000 now remain, says Abou Nasser.

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada in Beirut, Abou Nasser explains how the camp has changed in the last two years.

The Electronic Intifada: What did you do before the wave of peaceful protests in Syria?

Mutawalli Abou Nasser: I am married with two kids; I used to teach philosophy at a high school in Yarmouk. I also worked at a local theater directing plays and writing scripts. In addition I played a role in the camp’s social committees, volunteering some of my time to editing and writing for a local journal that was published and distributed in Palestinian camps within Syria.

That was my life until the protests began. In the past the Syrian regime banned us Palestinians from any form of organization. We were not allowed to have our own teachers and artists’ syndicates or a labor union. In the camp many of us resented the [ruling] Baath party for forcing a freeze on our political activity. This accumulated bitterness towards the only political party I was close to: the PFLP [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] disappointed me. I felt they were not doing anything to challenge the regime.

At the moment some people say you are Palestinian and Syria is none of your business; to me this is a misleading equation. The difference between us and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is the fact that in Syria, Palestinians had a role in society, [and] also Syrians treated us as fellow citizens, unlike Palestinian refugees in Lebanon who are marginalized and kept outside the Lebanese system. We are subject to the same treatment by the regime as our Syrian compatriots. To me this meant solidarity as the bare minimum.

EI: Can you explain the relations and sentiments of Yarmouk camp towards the Syrian regime and towards the Syrian uprising?

MAN: Daraa, [the southern city near the Jordanian border] where the revolution officially started, was under military siege and it was Palestinians from Daraa camp who broke the siege by smuggling food and gas to the stranded residents of Daraa.

As a result, seven of them were captured and killed on the spot. Palestinians in Yarmouk were outraged at this news; they called it a massacre. Palestinian camps in Syria were with the revolution before the revolution. We never forgot [the 1976 massacre in] Tel al-Zaatar [refugee camp, when a Syrian invasion of Lebanon allowed right-wing militias to kill thousands of Palestinians]. We never forgot the role of [former Syrian President] Hafez al-Assad in Lebanon against the Palestinian resistance and the camps.

However, Yarmouk remained neutral the first year of the Syrian revolution. I remember at the end of July 2011, we, the local committees of the camp, were organizing a protest but we agreed it should be outside the camp. Later we found out that many young people from the camp had been secretly going to surrounding areas to protest in solidarity with their Syrian friends.

There was public awareness and consensus that the camp should be left out and that was not easy to convey to the angry youth who had lost some of their Syrian friends in protests outside the camp. Then, displaced Syrian families started arriving to take shelter in the camp and that kept us all busy coordinating relief campaigns for the fleeing families.

EI: What did the Yarmouk camp offer by not joining the protests and staying neutral?

MAN: Palestinians, politicized since the day they are born, had experience in organization — in medical, humanitarian relief organization. We also offered our experience in media support, creating the Tanseqyat al-Yarmouk [Local Coordination Committees].

This media coordination was meant to serve as an outlet to surrounding areas that were protesting. Since we were trying to keep the camp away from direct involvement we only focused on media coverage and made sure that the reports we issued were fact-checked and accurate. Later, the task of coordination changed when bombs fell on the camp. After we got bombed the coordination had to expand its role from media only to include medical aid, housing and food distribution units in the camp. The camp’s role was logistical.

EI: Can you talk about the influence of the PFLP-GC and other regime-supported Palestinian factions in Yarmouk? [The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command is an armed Palestinian faction close to to the Syrian government, separate from the PFLP.]

MAN: The straw that broke the regime and its allies in the camp was the [5 June 2011] Naksa commemoration incident that followed the 15 May 2011 Nakba Day commemoration [when Palestinian refugees attempted to walk home over the Lebanese border, with 10 being shot dead by Israeli soliders].

On Naksa Day, we went to the borders but the regime profited politically from that day. We were wary about the people who were organizing the trip to the border. It was obvious these people were organizing to take young men to the border in a manner that did not feel spontaneous [as] at the Nakba commemoration.

This was a move the regime was going to invest in and send people to die on the border. We urged people in the camp not to go. However when the news came that people were being killed we could not stop people going to check on those at the border.

Things got tense in the camp when people returned and wanted to bury their martyrs: people clashed with the PFLP-GC, who responded by shooting at the funeral, killing more. Subsequently, people took to the streets wanting to cleanse Yarmouk. This was when the camp started its own “spring”: Palestinians against corrupt, opportunistic factions.

This was an incident that drove the camp away from neutrality. Then came indiscriminate shelling from MiGs [Russian made fighter jets] before Free Syrian Army fighters entered the camp. The Free Syrian Army officially entered the camp on 15 December 2012.

The PLFP-GC joined the regime and attacked FSA locations around Yarmouk. At first the PFLP-GC had 2,000 paid Palestinian fighters from the camp but now there are only [approximately] 80 of them left.

The FSA decided to enter the camp to fight the PFLP-GC, who were supported by the regime with six fighting groups who took their orders from the Air Force Intelligence: Syrian militants with few Palestinians. They controlled key entrances to the camp. The six groups were heavily armed with mortars, rocket launchers and infinite ammunition. These six groups besieged neighboring areas (al-Hajar and Tadamon) as Yarmouk was operating as a lifeline to these besieged areas, pumping medical supplies, cooking gas, food and water.

EI: Did the FSA coordinate its entry to the camp with the local committee?

MAN: Of course, the FSA organized with the local militant groups whose job was only to protect the camp from regime thugs. And as soon as the FSA entered there was no confrontation with the six groups by the regime or with the PFLP-GC, whose paid members defected right away. The FSA went into the camp because of its strategic location while they were trying to capture Damascus.

EI: How did the residents feel about the FSA entering their camp; did they approve of it?

MAN: The residents of the camp were against the FSA stationing in it. I personally rejected the FSA entering the camp. The camp had a humanitarian role; bringing the war to the middle of it was a mistake.

In the end we agreed upon the FSA’s entry only as a passage not a location. We told them, pass through to get to your next ambush but don’t stay in the camp.

The situation started deteriorating six days after the FSA entered the camp: there was no bread anymore, [and] a shortage of all the medical supplies needed by the four field hospitals in the camp.

Before the FSA involved the camp in its war the camp was a humanitarian phenomenon: rents stayed cheap, there was plenty of food, and the medical support the camp offered saved many lives. Only the Islamists in the camp were in favor of the FSA stationing in Yarmouk.

The regime’s fighter jets bombed the camp daily and with it the number of martyrs rose: at times 20 died in one day. People must understand that the indiscriminate bombing of the camp by the regime — killing innocent people, children in their playground — made the FSA’s idea more acceptable to Palestinian residents of the camp. The more the MiGs bombed the camp, the more people wanted the FSA to stay.

EI: How is the situation in Yarmouk right now?

MAN: The situation in the camp at the moment is unfit for living; it’s atrocious. There still remain around 40,000 people who can’t escape. Many Palestinians from Yarmouk are scattered around Syria, and at the height of the bombing their numbers soared to 70,000. Many fled to Lebanon, but Lebanon is not a friendly place for Palestinians.

At the moment in Syria there are restrictions and arrests at the entrances of the camp. Food prices are at an all-time high; a bag of bread is being sold for $4 now while before it was less than $1. The Syrian army has imposed strict search orders on the food that enters the camp. They search every bag of bread and every tin of tuna, so substantial amounts get damaged before they reach people inside the camp.

Yarmouk has been transformed from a lifeline to a bullet-riddled, bloodless body.

EI: How do you see your role now that you are in exile in Lebanon? How are you helping from here?

MAN: It’s ironic. While I’m in Lebanon I’m feeling more Palestinian than I felt in Syria. I’m now writing in local Lebanese newspapers trying to shed light on the refugee issue and also dedicating most of my time to relief work in the camps. There is plenty of aid coming to Lebanon to be distributed among Syrian refugees but little to none is being distributed among Palestinians from Syria.

In December the regime gave people in Yarmouk eight hours to leave the camp. Chaos ensued and as we failed to convince people to stay we fled with them to Lebanon. After the humiliations and trials at the border, those who could afford the $17 visa fees finally entered. Luckily I managed to have a friend from Beirut send me $600 to pay for fleeing people who couldn’t afford entry fees to Lebanon.

On that day a depressing reality hit me like a brick to the head: Palestinians are being humiliated in countries where they should feel welcome and at home.

Editor’s note: the spelling of Mutawalli Abou Nasser’s name was changed since this article was first published.

Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. Follow him on Twitter: @MoeAliNay.