Salim Salamah spent 22 years in Yarmouk, man and boy. He was one of the thousands who fled when, three years ago, the Syrian bombs started landing on the refugee camp five miles from the centre of Damascus.
Today, the bombs are again landing in the camp. “The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars,” said one activist this week.
A little over a year ago, surrounded by the raging Syrian civil war, food was so scarce that some of Yarmouk’s 18,000 residents were forced to eat roots and herbs. Now, however, the situation is worse. Bombed, starved and slaughtered, the refugees living on the outskirts of Damascus face another threat to their survival: Isis [Daesh] and its guerrilla war with Palestinian militants.
Beheadings, the gruesome calling card of the self-proclaimed “Islamic State”, are now carried out on the rubble-filled streets of Yarmouk. By night, the residents of a camp built for Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, watch bombs fall from the sky. “With the fall of the barrel bomb, the angel of death arrives,” one refugee said.
On the ground, fighting continues between Isis and other groups, most notably Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a militia formed of Syrians and Palestinians within Yarmouk’s boundaries. Isis is now said to control 90 per cent of Yarmouk.
Furthermore, it is Yarmouk that has reportedly seen the previously thought impossible alliance between Syria’s al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis. The 25-year-old Mr Salamah fled to Malmo in Sweden, via Lebanon, in 2012. “I spent almost all of my life in Yarmouk. It was very well integrated within Damascus and was a hub of the city – Palestinians flourished and debate on many levels was taking place,” Mr Salamah told The Independent. “The bombing of the Syrian regime on 16 December 2012 was a turning point. It triggered a lot of anti-regime fighters.”
He said the Isis incursion into Yarmouk began overnight on 1 April. “The Islamic State raided the camp suddenly. This operation was al-Nusra working with Isis. It is a very different dynamic.”
He describes the barrel bombing by the Syrian regime as “indiscriminate and stupid”, claiming one bomb hit a cemetery today. He added: “People are trapped because of the clashes and the continuous and indiscriminate bombing. It’s hard to go out at all. But they can expect where the guerilla war will take place, but they can never predict where the barrel bombs will come. There is no water. People are running out of food.”
Beheadings have also started to occur. “I saw three bodies which were beheaded,” Abdullah al Khateeb, a human rights activist in Yarmouk, told The Independent. Mr Khateeb claimed 170 people have died in the camp as a result of hunger and lack of health care. Medical supplies, which were already running short, have been looted by Isis. Already Isis is starting to arrest activists and threaten others, including Mr Khateeb. The militants have shot several activists, and many are now trying to flee.
Umar Phiri, from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Damascus, said there was “no access” to Yarmouk. The UN Security Council has called to the protection of civilians and humanitarian access. Delivering a report to the council this week, Pierre Krahenbuhl of the Palestinian UNWRA relief agency said the situation was “more desperate than ever”. Save the Children said there are more than 3,500 young people trapped in the camp.
“What we are seeing in Yarmouk is a travesty,” said Save the Children’s Regional Director Roger Hearn.
By Sam Masters and Fernande Van Tets
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