Syrian army slows Yarmouk food aid to a trickle

A devastated street in Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus.

UN Archive

As representatives of the Syrian government and opposition, along with official delegations from various countries, met in a conference hall in Montreux, Switzerland today, on the ground civilians continue to live through the horror of Syria’s civil war.

On 21 January, staff from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, attempted once again to deliver food parcels to Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus, where thousands of Palestinian refugees and Syrian citizens are trapped.

There are reports of widespread malnutrition and deaths from starvation in Yarmouk, which has been closed to humanitarian access since July.

UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness gave this statement describing what happened:

To date UNRWA has managed to deliver just a few hundred food parcels into Yarmouk, where as many as 18,000 civilians, including women and children, have been trapped in extremely harsh conditions for months. In spite of UNRWA’s persistent efforts, only a small number of families have so far been able to receive food parcels.

Thousands more are desperately waiting their turn to benefit from this first food distribution inside Yarmouk since July 2013.

UNRWA is working with Syrian authorities, who are facilitating the distribution, to do more to speed up the process so that more substantial quantities of relief can reach the thousands of of civilians in Yarmouk, and help to ease their suffering. 

UNRWA appreciates the steps taken so far to facilitate the delivery of food parcels to Yarmouk. However, humanitarian access is not yet sufficient to meet the desperate needs of civilians trapped in the camp. UNRWA is strongly urging that more should be done to provide access to many more civilians and to achieve safe, substantial and regular humanitarian access to Yarmouk. 

Syrian army delays

The UNRWA statement is typically diplomatic, but hints at the fact that greater humanitarian access to the civilians trapped in Yarmouk camp remains in the hands of the Syrian army.

An eyewitness told The Electronic Intifada that distribution of relief supplies in recent days has been extremely slow as a result of a time-consuming process of identification and list-checking by government forces at the distribution point.

On 18 and 20 January, for instance, numerous civilians were turned away and only a fraction of the available relief was distributed each day.

On 21 January, according to the eyewitness, UNRWA staff arrived at the northern Batikha entrance of Yarmouk before 11 AM. At 11:30, the team was permitted by government forces to enter the camp under the same government clearances that had allowed access for UNRWA staff on 18 and 20 January.

UNRWA brought several dozen food parcels and other supplies to the to the Sama Street distribution point, approximately one kilometer south of the Batikha entrance and about 100 meters north of the front line.

However, the distribution of the supplies was delayed for several hours by Syrian government forces as nine civilians were being evacuated.

Finally the distrubution began at 2:45PM, but was again interrupted when an injured Palestinian man unsuccessfully tried to seek clearance to leave Yarmouk.

Distribution then resumed, but at 4:45PM government forces shut the process down. By the end of the day, only about two dozen food parcels had been distributed in total and the UNRWA team left.

The reason the distribution was so slow is that that military personnel would only allow food parcels to be given to people whose name is on a list of 5,000 Yarmouk residents supplied to it by a Palestinian charity.

Any other civilians approaching the distribution area seeking food were turned away.

Food as a weapon

The Wall Street Journal reported on 21 January, that “Both sides in the conflict have used access to food and medicine as a weapon, but it has been mostly the Syrian government, according to human-rights groups and interviews with more than a dozen aid officials and workers.”

Yarmouk is among several other areas around Damascus including Ghouta and Moadamiyeh that have been closed to aid, a situation that prevails in several other Syrian cities as well.

“The unimpeded delivery of medical supplies must be facilitated in an impartial manner to all areas,” the International Committee of the Red Cross reiterated on 15 January.

“The denial of this until now represents a major obstacle to any meaningful improvement in the humanitarian situation.”

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