“Profound civilian suffering” in Syria’s besieged Yarmouk camp

Palestinians in Gaza City take part in a 7 January solidarity rally calling for an end to the Syrian army siege on Yarmouk camp.

Mohammed Talatene APA images

“There is profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries,” Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees says.

Since July, some 20,000 Palestinian and Syrian residents remaining in Yarmouk camp on the outskirts of Damascus, have been under a tight siege by the Syrian army, with persistent reports of people dying of starvation.

Gunness says that women are dying in childbirth and children are suffering from malnutrition-related diseases, including anemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor.

In his full statement below, sent to The Electronic Intifada, Gunness describes the desperate and horrifying situation in the camp.

Before the Syrian civil war began, Yarmouk had 160,000 residents.

UNRWA is the only UN agency with personnel on the ground within Yarmouk and thus the comments of Gunness must carry particular weight.


Yet despite calls from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN and others, Syria continues to refuse humanitarian access to Yarmouk, or to other areas where large numbers of civilians are under siege including Eastern Ghouta, the old city of Homs and Moadamiyah.

“The continued presence of armed groups that entered the area at the end of 2012 and its closure by government forces have thwarted all our humanitarian efforts,” Gunness told Ma’an News Agency last month.

His latest statement makes clear that “from a humanitarian perspective, Yarmouk remains closed to humanitarian access.”

“I emphasize that the imperative remains that Syrian authorities and other parties must allow and facilitate safe and open humanitarian access into Yarmouk to enable us to assist civilians trapped there.”

Last week, a group of sick refugees who were to leave Yarmouk camp for treatment were prevented from doing so due to sniper fire from members of the armed group Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Ma’an News Agency reported.

So far all efforts by the Palestine Liberation Organization to broker an end to the siege have failed.

“Profound civilian suffering”

Statement from UNRWA spokesperson Chris Gunness:

There is profound civilian suffering in Yarmouk with widespread incidence of malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries, and including for women in childbirth, with fatal consequences for some women. Residents, including infants and children, are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water. Children are suffering from diseases linked to severe malnutrition, including anemia, rickets, and kwashiorkor.

There has been an appalling absence of electricity and heating for horrendously long periods, now close to one year, with all this implies for poor health. Residents are having to rely on going out on terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors. There is a very infrequent supply of tap water – reportedly available for four hours only at intervals of three days. The unending armed conflict brings death and inflicts serious injuries on Yarmouk residents in addition to the extreme deprivation of living a trapped existence.

It is public knowledge that some residents have been allowed to leave Yarmouk, although it remains unclear how many have left and whether the conditions under which they left were consistent with the international standards for the protection of civilians. From a humanitarian perspective, Yarmouk remains closed to humanitarian access and remains a place where extreme human suffering in primitively harsh conditions is the norm for Palestinian and Syrian civilians living there. I emphasize that the imperative remains that Syrian authorities and other parties must allow and facilitate safe and open humanitarian access into Yarmouk to enable us to assist civilians trapped there.




Perhaps it doesn't matter if foreign nations (with probable assistance
by the US) support the invasion, destruction of a sovereign UN member.
Against the core provisions of international law. It seems immaterial
to blame the Syrian Regime if its land and its capital are invaded by foreign
armed military force (known as "the opposition" as though that bequeaths
some sanctity on the invaders' violence. Condemn Saudi Arabia, Quatar
and other nations invading Syria with embargoes as required. This
should include so-called "non-lethal" assistance provided by the US
CIA. If Israel is involved it too should be condemned.

The Assad regime is not sacred. But then...neither are any of these
invaders. Support international law and the Charter of the UN, Article 2(4).

Condolences to all who suffer and die because of refusal of many to
follow a treaty they have all signed. Condolences to all who suffer the
cowardly inaction of the powerful in avoiding to take significant action
to end such illegal armed invasions.


There is one question in all this that to me seems obvious. Ali, can you explain why most people, especially rebel fighters, you see in videos (at funerals, protests, etc.) seem pretty well-nourished, while only certain others (children and the elderly) get no food? Whatever shortage there is, it's not hitting everyone evenly. So maybe even more than the shortage itself, isn't this a problem with distribution within the rebel-held areas?

Of course, people can have a hard time getting out, or getting aid in time, because of shelling, snipers, or whatever. But as soon as they're dead, the starved bodies are always accessible to rebels quickly, and up on Youtube right after that. That doesn't sit quite right with me.

My concern is someone in there (let's just say ISIS - no love lost, right?) is making sure a steady stream of people - likely ones already held hostage, and who knows who they really are - starve to death, to blame Assad and guilt-trip the world. ISIS also seems to keep medical aid away, as you note, and probably were the ones who chased the food convoy back on Monday. The crisis, death, and demonization seem to suit them. So why not suspect them of running the starvation operation themselves?

The small and steady toll supports this - a good way to keep the pressure on without burning through your supply of people too quickly. Is this not worth considering?

Thanks for approving a contrary thought in the interest of truth. Any response appreciated.

- Adam Larson aka Caustic Logic


Thanks to Adam Larson for your support.

One should perhaps ask more profound questions as to why there should be
any so-called "rebel-held areas" in the first place. Perhaps it has never occurred
to anyone that this is worthy of condemnation by all nations claiming to adhere international law.

Or is it, perhaps, the case that the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Quatar and
friends are covered by no rules whatsoever? (aka "exceptionalism"?)

I remember in the not-too-distant past that the US employed a militant ostensibly
to fight Russia. They did that task very well indeed. The invading nations
in Syria are in many ways employing similar strategies. Well this is a longer
narrative than present space permits.