Civilians under fire as Islamic State seizes Yarmouk

A street in Yarmouk refugee camp photographed in April 2015.

Rami al Sayyed UNRWA

Thousands of civilians in Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus are once again in immediate danger as fierce fighting between rival groups has trapped families in their homes, preventing access to food and water.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s envoy to Syria said Tuesday night that Islamic State militants were in control of 70 percent of the camp and were beheading and raping residents.

Control over the remainder of the camp is split between Jabhat al-Nusra and allied Palestinian fighters, on the one hand, and the Syrian government, on the other, according to the Jafra Foundation, a Palestinian relief group in Syria.

The Palestine Liberation Organization’s Anwar Abd al-Hadi told the Ma’an News Agency that Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, had allowed Islamic State fighters to infiltrate the camp last year, “but the two extremist groups had since turned on one another, and [Islamic State] now held the majority of the camp,” the agency reported.

“[Abd al-Hadi] said at least 20 people in the camp had been beheaded and buried before anyone was able to identify them,” Ma’an added.

Food and water shortages

An estimated 6,000 families remain in the camp, according to UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees.

“The continuous, highly intense fighting is not only causing civilian casualties and fatalities, but has also acutely aggravated shortages of food and clean water,” UNRWA stated last week.

The agency was unable to deliver aid between late September last year and mid-February this year, causing severe food shortages.

Once home to 150,000 residents, Yarmouk was formerly the largest Palestinian population center in the country before it became an arena of fighting in December 2012. Thousands fled after rebel forces entered the camp and its central mosque was hit in government airstrikes.

Since then, electricity and water supplies to the camp have been cut and a complete siege was imposed by government forces and allied groups in July 2013.

Dozens in the camp starved to death that following winter, and many more have been killed during clashes and ongoing shelling and strikes on Yarmouk.

The Jafra Foundation said in a statement on Monday that the latest bout of violence erupted after Islamic State fighters seized a checkpoint between Yarmouk and the neighboring suburb of Yalda, “completely cutting off civilian access to any and all supplies.”

Seven civilians, including two children, were killed by sniper fire, Jafra said. The group added that one of those slain, Hisham Zawabe, was a relief worker who was shot outside his home.

Residents are unable to evacuate the dead and wounded from the streets “due to continuous sniping,” the group said, adding that two civilians were beheaded by Islamic State fighters.

No doctors, medical supplies

The camp currently lacks functioning medical facilities and doctors to treat injured persons.

Palestine Hospital, the main medical center in the camp, has no fuel to operate equipment, Jafra stated, and Basel hospital, the only other facility in the camp, was lately destroyed by Islamic State fighters.

“Amputation has become a common form of treatment to save lives, as surgical tools and equipment are unable to be used and no doctors remain in the camp,” the group added.

Jafra warned that there is a great need for drinking water and water treatment tabs in the camp, where the groundwater is contaminated and residents have been cut off from drinking water service for more than 500 days.

The Action Group for Palestinians of Syria meanwhile called for an immediate end to the fighting and for the evacuation of civilians to safer areas of the camp, and a lifting of the siege and the entry of medical aid and emergency relief.

The monitoring group also called on the Syrian government and the Palestine Liberation Organization to intervene “to save what remains of Yarmouk” and ensure the protection of civilians there.


Maureen Clare Murphy

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Maureen Clare Murphy is senior editor of The Electronic Intifada.