Violence prevents food aid to Yarmouk, where refugees live on one meal per day

Yarmouk residents now suffer from chronic malnutrition, dehydration and severe vitamin and protein deficiencies, according to the UN agency for Palestine refugees.

As the war in Syria approaches its fifth year, a United Nations agency warned today that it has been unable to successfully deliver aid to Yarmouk camp near the capital of Damascus since 6 December.

“Yarmouk and its surrounding areas have seen a serious escalation in armed conflict, including frequent sniper activity, gunfire and the use of heavy weapons, which have persistently disrupted the distribution of life-saving humanitarian aid to the 18,000 civilians trapped in the area,” Chris Gunness, spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestine refugees, stated.

Yarmouk was once the largest population center of Palestinians in Syria. Before the violent upheaval in the country, the camp’s residents “comprised some 180,000 Palestinian refugees and several hundred thousand Syrian nationals,” according to Amnesty International.

Yarmouk has been under siege by Syrian government forces since December 2012after armed rebels entered the camp. Dozens died from starvation there after government forces “began to prevent all access to Yarmouk” in July 2013, states Amnesty.

Residents have not had reliable electricity since then, as the main supply was cut, according to UNRWA.

Most Palestinians in Syria are refugees from the 1948 ethnic cleansing of Palestine and their descendants, as well as those displaced after the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in 1967. Israel refuses to respect the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their land and property.

There were approximately 520,000 Palestinian refugees living in Syria before the outbreak of the violence in early 2011, “some living in refugee camps and others in Syrian towns and cities, where they enjoyed many of the same rights as Syrian citizens, including access to government services,” as Human Rights Watch recently described.

400 calories per day

Conditions have dramatically turned for the worse in recent years, particularly in Yarmouk.

Last year UNRWA was able to distribute the “equivalent to only 400 calories per resident per day, drastically short of the World Food Programme recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in crisis zones.”

“Other basic needs, including access to health care, non-food items and adequate shelter are similarly unmet, including access to safe, potable water,” the agency added.

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Ongoing and indiscriminate shelling has reduced most of Yarmouk to rubble, as shown in this 2014UNRWA photo.

Residents are reporting that they are bathing only once every two weeks, UNRWA said. Water must be pumped from open wells and the high cost of fuel to run the pumps “means that residents can only run pumps from open wells once a week,” the agency stated.

“During this window of opportunity, residents and young boys are sent to fill Gerry cans. As the ten-year-boy [Aziz] told us, it takes him five hours to fill and bring back to his family 100 liters that will be used over the [next] five days,” UNRWA added. Aziz can be heard describing in Arabic this chore on UNRWA’s SoundCloud page.

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Photo distributed by UNRWA on 30 January shows a Yarmouk resident filling containers with untreated groundwater from a well dug from the surface of a camp road. (Rami Al-Sayyed)

“The lack of electricity means that water needs to be transported to different floors of buildings where people are living as there is no pumping system to send water to roof tanks,” UNRWA added.

A video published by UNRWA today shows how residents have dug into Yarmouk’s streets to collect untreated ground water:

Boys collect ground water for their families

Winter cold has exacerbated the dire situation in Yarmouk, freezing water supplies and vegetables grown by residents to sustain themselves. Meanwhile residents lack electricity to keep them warm.

UNRWA’s statement quotes a resident named Raeda who said a recent winter storm “made life difficult in Yarmouk because there was no way of warming the houses. Many houses have broken windows and doors, so life got harder during the storm. As there is no food coming into Yarmouk, we have been relying on radishes or basic vegetables, but they froze during the storm.

“There is no wood, so we are burning furniture and clothes and whatever they can find to keep warm but the smoke of things that are not meant to burn has been making us sicker,” she added.

Arabic-speakers can listen to Raeda describe the difficult winter conditions here.

This video published by UNRWA today shows a family burning clothes to stay warm in the manner described by Raeda:

Staying warm at all costs

UNRWA also reports that “Yarmouk’s main hospital has been damaged by shelling and is severely understaffed, with no medicine or medical supplies.”

The hospital has “no surgical equipment, no surgeons and just one out-of-date ultrasound machine,” the agency adds. “Inadequate pre- and post-natal care, as well as malnutrition, puts mothers and newborns at high risk of complications.”

Daily struggle

The daily struggle to survive in Yarmouk camp was recently described by resident Niraz Saied in an interview with The Electronic Intifada contributor Budour Youssef Hassan.

“I have to wake up early in the morning and fill several buckets with water from the well using very modest equipment,” Saied said.

“It tastes like anything but water, but we’ve gotten used to it. Then I have to collect firewood … [from] demolished houses. The gasoline inside the camp is incredibly expensive … [but I’m] relatively lucky because I have a gas cylinder and a generator. Electricity has become such a rare luxury that many children who were born during the siege are growing up without even knowing what it’s like.”

Saied won first prize in a 2014 photography competition organized by the European Union and UNRWA for his image of three apparently malnourished children taken at the height of the siege in March 2014.

One meal per day

Approximately 480,000 Palestinian refugees remain in Syria, with more than 280,000 internally displaced within the country. An additional 80,000 have fled the country, most of them to Lebanon and Jordan, “where their vulnerability is exacerbated by deepening poverty, discriminatory policies and uncertain legal status,” according to UNRWA.

“Many Palestine refugees, such as the 18,000 trapped in the besieged area of Yarmouk, have been forced to reduce their food intake to one meal a day, while children are frequently pulled out of school to support their families,” the agency has stated.

Yarmouk residents now suffer chronic malnutrition, dehydration and severe vitamin and protein deficiencies as a result.

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A mother cooks for her children beside their makeshift shelter in this 2014 UNRWA photo.

UNRWA says that it is capable of meeting all humanitarian needs of the remaining 18,000 residents of Yarmouk and that it has been able to deliver 1,000 food parcels per day “on days when all concerned actors cooperated fully to give priority to the food needs of civilians in Yarmouk.”

This is in contrast to the agency’s announcement this week that due to a budget shortfall, it is forced to suspend aid to thousands in besieged Gaza who were made homeless by Israeli bombing this summer.

Right of return

The Electronic Intifada contributor Nael Bitarie recently described his own experience fleeing Yarmouk, where he says Palestinians had tried to remain neutral at the outset of the uprising against the Bashar al-Assad regime.

“Our neutrality did not protect us from either Assad’s forces or from rebels, however,” Bitarie writes. “Not long ago, Yarmouk was the capital of the Palestinian diaspora in Syria. Today, the camp has been destroyed.”

The terrors endured by besieged Palestinian refugees in Syria and Gaza last year must be answered with the centralization of the right of return, Bitarie states.

In the meantime, Palestinians and Syrians alike face another year of vulnerability and extreme hardship.

“In 2014, the unemployment rate in Syria reached 54 percent; it is expected to reach 66 percent in 2015,” according to UNRWA. “The cost of food has increased sharply, with the cost of rice rising by 387 percent since 2011, and 20 percent since May 2014 alone.”

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