As the Islamic State has seized most of the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria and trapped about 18,000 civilians, those who were lucky enough to escape have told of the ISIS atrocities they witnessed and one even described the barbaric nature in which militants used a person’s decapitated head.
As ISIS militants descended on the Yarmouk refugee camp in the nation’s capital city of Damascus last Wednesday, thousands of civilians were trapped between the brutal extremist group and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s with little to no food, water or medicine.
Although the death and casualty toll among Palestinian civilians at the camp is not certain, an official from the Palestinian Liberation Organization said earlier this week that at least 27 Palestinian camp residents have been killed since ISIS entered the camp, while an estimated 75 to 200 Palestinians have been abducted by ISIS during that time.
“Accurate information on casualties is difficult to obtain due to the tragic conditions inside the camp,” Ahmed Majdalani, an official for the PLO, told Palestine’s official radio station.
One 55-year-old refugee named Abdel Fatah, who is one of about 2,500 people who have fled the camp due to ISIS’ takeover, described the appalling nature of ISIS’ brutality in an interview with AFP earlier this week.
“I saw severed heads. They killed children in front of their parents. We were terrorised,” Fatah explained.
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About Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp
The Islamic State militant group moved into Yarmouk, a refugee camp for Palestinians on the outskirts of the Syrian capital city of Damascus, last week. Since then, hundreds of the group’s fighters have been battling rival armed groups for control of the camp. IS militants currently appear to hold most of Yarmouk, resisting bombardments by the Syrian army as well as attacks from militias.
The fighting has reduced Yarmouk into a ghost town, with its civilians trapped inside by constant sniper fire and bombardments. Video footage purportedly from Yarmouk residents, collected by Reuters and other media outlets this week, showed the streets near-deserted and bombed to pieces.
But while the utter devastation portrayed in recent images of the camp may come as a shock to many, Yarmouk’s descent into ruin actually started years ago. The latest round of fighting brings an already disastrous humanitarian situation in the refugee camp one step closer to full collapse.
“Yarmouk was already a place where women had died in childbirth for lack of medicine, where children had reportedly died of malnutrition. So things were already appalling,” Chris Gunnes of UNRWA, the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees, told German news broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “Yarmouk was a hell hole frankly. And with the eruption of this intense fighting, things got dramatically worse.”
Yarmouk is located about five miles south of the Damascus city center. Established in 1957, the camp served as the main refuge for tens of thousands of Palestinians who had fled their homes during and after the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, which resulted in Israel’s independence. Over the years, Yarmouk grew into a densely populated neighborhood outside the Syrian capital, housing tens of thousands of Palestinians and Syrians.
In the spring of 2011, Syrians took to the streets to demand reform from President Bashar Assad — the start of the Syrian uprising. Around the country and in Yarmouk, Palestinian refugees initially tried to remain neutral. They were divided on the anti-government protests: Some identified with the rebels, while others supported the Assad government.
Eventually, pro- and anti-Assad factions of Palestinians in Yarmouk began to clash. On Dec. 16, 2012, amid the fighting, the Syrian air force hit several civilian targets in the area, prompting hundreds of the camp’s residents to leave their homes and cross into neighboring countries for safety.
Things quickly went from bad to worse. The Syrian military put the camp on lockdown in the spring of 2013 and systematically tightened its control over the influx of people, goods and food. Yarmouk starved.
“I eat anything that I can get my hands on. I eat on average one meal every 30 hours, ”one Yarmouk resident told Amnesty International in a report published in early 2014.
Amnesty’s report detailed the deteriorating conditions in the camp after Syria’s military began cracking down. By July 2013, the blockade was complete, and all people, goods and foods were barred from entering the camp.
Residents had to resort to desperate measures. Many were forced to forage for food. Reports circulated of civilians eating herbs and drinking water with spices in place of a meal.
According to Amnesty:
For months residents survived scouring the area for anything that might be edible, including cactus leaves, dandelion leaves and other plants. Hunger has driven many to expose themselves to government snipers while searching for food.
The United Nations said last month that more than a hundred people in Yarmouk have died of hunger or from illnesses made worse by hunger or lack of medical care.
Those who remained behind became completely dependent on aid from outside, but more often than not, the regime denied aid organizations access to the camp. In January 2014, UNRWA was finally allowed in. Shortly after, a photo showing thousands of residents lining up for aid distributions made headlines around the world.
Even after it was permitted to access the camp in January 2014, however, UNRWA says it was only able to distribute aid 131 days out of the year. “Clearly not enough,”UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krahenbuhl said in March. The food and medicine that got delivered did not come close to meeting the needs of all those remaining in the camp. The agency has continued to face difficulties working in Yarmouk.
“My kids get up in the morning asking for a glass of milk or a piece of bread. I can only give them a radish or vegetables, and sometimes even this is not available,” one father told UNRWA earlier this year.
Yarmouk was once home to more than 150,000 Palestinian refugees, but aid agencies estimate that the population has been reduced to about 18,000 residents since the Syrian government’s siege began in 2013. According to Amnesty’s 2014 report, most of those left behind are too weak or too poor to seek shelter elsewhere.
Many who did make it out ended up in refugee camps in neighboring countries, including Jordan and Lebanon. They have became refugees for a second time — first, they fled their homes in Israel and the Palestinian territories, and now they have been forced to leave Yarmouk as well.
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