Amid gunfire, relief convoy turns back from Syria’s besieged Yarmouk camp

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah take part in a solidarity rally with Palestinians in Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, on 14 January 2014. Issam Rimawi APA images

On 13 January, another attempt was made to take a humanitarian aid convoy into the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus, where about 20,000 people are trapped, including women and children.

The convoy was from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, which serves over half a million Palestinian refugees in Syria, although about 70,000 of them have fled the fighting into Lebanon, Jordan and elsewhere.

Amid reports of widespread malnutrition in Yarmouk, of women dying during childbirth because of shortages of medical care, and of children eating animal feed to survive, this is what happened to the UNRWA convoy.

This account was provided by Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, and is reproduced verbatim:

The relief convoy which tried to get in to Yarmouk was an UNRWA convoy led by UNRWA staff and carrying humanitarian supplies loaded from UNRWA’s central warehouse in Damascus – six small trucks with food for 6,000 people along with 10,000 doses of polio vaccine and some medical supplies.

Syrian authorities provided us with a security escort enabling us to reach a last government-controlled checkpoint at the southern entrance of Yarmouk.

The convoy was cleared to proceed beyond the checkpoint and the Syrian authorities provided a bulldozer to go ahead to clear the road of debris, earth mounds and other obstructions.

The bulldozer was fired upon, hit by direct gunfire and forced to withdraw, though with no casualties. Thereafter, bursts of gunfire, including machine-gun fire, erupted close to the trucks and UNRWA vehicles, suggesting a firefight.

Also, one mortar exploded very close to the convoy. The convoy withdrew at this point following the advice of the security escort and returned safely to Damascus.

At no time was the UNRWA convoy fired upon. No person or convoy vehicle was hit and no one was injured.

When Syrian authorities gave UNRWA clearance to proceed to deliver assistance to Yarmouk, they required UNRWA to use the southern entrance to Yarmouk. This meant the convoy had to drive some 20 kilometres through an area of intense and frequent armed conflict, in which numerous armed opposition groups, including some of the most extreme jihadist groups, have a strong and active presence.

Citing security concerns, Syrian authorities did not give UNRWA permission to use the northern entrance to Yarmouk which is under government control, and which is generally regarded as more likely to be accessible with relatively less risk.

This is an extremely disappointing setback for the residents of Yarmouk who continue to live in inhumanely wretched conditions.

UNRWA remains undaunted by this frustrating failure and is already pressing Syrian authorities to support a further attempt to deliver humanitarian assistance to Yarmouk. 

Yarmouk is only one of a number of Palestine refugee camps which endure various degrees of extremely harsh conditions.

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.