By Rana Abdulla
Of all the privations in the modern world, some of which can be overcome, admittedly with difficulty, such things as the lack of electricity and gas for heating or cooking although we take for granted are not necessarily prerequisites for a life of sorts, yet all would agree, what cannot be endured in any measure is the deprivation of water, food and sanitary conditions. Such is the lot of Palestinians in the Yarmouk refugee camp.
Dehydration, disease and penury are daily reality for a people the world has forgotten or seem to little care. To see a child die of starvation, any child let alone one of your own is a sorrow no one should ever bear, yet this is an everyday occurrence in the Yarmouth refugee camp.
People in Yarmouk camp in Syria are forced to consume grass, leaves, animal feed and literally anything they can find to slake their thirst or assuage their hunger, irrespective of their fitness for human consumption. It is difficult to find words to adequately describing the exact misery of the Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp after 180 + days of sealed siege by the pitiless forces of the Syrian regime. It is difficult to understand why the world has turned its back on these brothers and sisters who are forced to live in such dismal conditions. Despite the conflict which is not the cause or the desire of its residence there have been many opportunities for the international community to administer humanitarian aid to Yarmouk, yet none has been forthcoming. Why is the world, even the Arab world treating the occupants of Yarmouk with such indifference?
The prevailing situation of the Palestinians in Syria should be heartbreaking for every human being who has knowledge of it. If the terrifying hazards of a war zone were not enough for the Palestinian refugees, the added visitation of hunger and disease in the camp, is a shameful slap in the face of the so called civilized world. Yarmouk, no doubt, along with notable other instances, is paying the heaviest price for Syria’s war. There have been a number of reports of Palestinian refugees dying in the Yarmouk camp from starvation. These include children as young as a mere few months old. The television pictures coming out of Yarmouk of starving women and children are nothing short of excruciating to right minded people. Yet the world and especially the Arab world appear unconcerned with the plight of these innocent Palestinians caught up in a conflict not of their making.
Latest reports by activists on the ground detail the death of at least 40 people from starvation already this year, and the count is increasing day by day. Located in the south of Damascus, the Yarmouk refugee camp initially housed 250,000 Palestinian refugees out of which 150,000 were registered with the Syrian government. However, after three years of a bloody and brutal civil war, Yarmouk has been reduced to ruins and only about 18,000 refugees remain. The others it is thought have managed to escape mainly to Jordan or Lebanon. A BBC report claimed that the Yarmouk camp gates have been closed to all traffic, including aid since July, and no help has reached the beleaguered people since then.
Besides the 1,500 Palestinians that are confirmed killed in the ongoing conflict, several others have been wounded and if that were not enough, the already perilous situation is set to worsen and one can only wonder as to the eventual end to the suffering these unfortunate Palestinian people. As if it were not enough to be made a refugee once, but to seek refuge from a refuge is surely an evil beyond mere fortune. A larger number of refugees have fled from Syria nearby areas along with the vast majority being displaced inside Syria itself. The migration itself is a damning indictment of the regions prevailing troubles, however equally culpable in this ongoing disaster is the staggering indifference of the other prosperous Arab nations beyond the immediate local.
The Yarmouk refugee camp is today at the heart of the Palestinian narrative tragedy, even though located in Syria, it has remained the most salient and articulate commentary on the Palestinian situation. One of the reasons for this is the fact that this Palestinian base has been used by Syrian rebels as a point of contact with the outside world for the past six months. This is partly due to the fact that the refugee camp is seen as almost autonomous from Syrian rule, therefore presenting the rebels with a base beyond Syrian government control.
Yet beyond the current conflict the Syrian government is one of the few in the region to provide any sort of a refuge for Palestinians. Compared to some other Arab countries where standards are very poor. However, even in Syria thousands of refugees have become victims of the adverse political machinations and sectarian conflicts that tend to flare-up from time to time in the region. That said, the current conflict is easily the worst faced by the camp. In Dec 2012, the Yarmouk camp was taken over by the Free Syrian Army followed by fierce fighting, after which the camp was bombarded from the air by the government killing dozens while thousands were forced to flee for their lives.
Although the signs of danger for the Palestinians refugees were very obvious, it was some time before the Palestinian leadership decided to negotiate for the designation of a special status, for the Yarmouk camp for refugees in the hope of keeping them out of Syria’s conflict. They agreed that refugees should not be used as fodder in the war in Syria, however all attempts to implement and maintain agreement have thus far failed.
The failure in this regard is not limited to the Palestinian leadership or the Syrian government alone, rather the international community too has failed to recognize the gravity of the situation and the whole episode is proving to be a shameful failure. The international community can quite rightly militate loudly against the mere mention of Assad’s use of the chemical weapon, but the daily dying and starvation of refugees seems to be a humanitarian crisis too far, or insignificant for positive action. It is a shameful indictment on the compassion of the international community that this deepening crisis in the Syrian conflict has received such little attention. There has not even been a resolution by the UN concerning Yarmouk, and as such one has to question the regard for the value of a Palestinian refugee’s life, in the grand scheme of things.
Meanwhile the Palestinian government is arranging more peace talks and it is very difficult to holdout any hope for their success. Palestinian refugee camps are starving to death and their problems are hardly a priority.
Presently the Palestinian refugees have no political representation, no legal status, no international support and no true leadership dedicated to solving their most pressing issues. Palestinian refugees were initially dispossessed by Israel in 1948, and have since been suffering equally at the hands of the Arab countries as well. These countries have also proved to be as inhospitable and unwelcoming to the refugees of Palestine.
There have been numerous instances which have suggested that Arab countries and militias have in the past perpetrated massacres on the Palestinian people. Even though many Arab peoples have expressed solidarity with the Palestinians, their acts have often suggested otherwise. Nothing has been done politically or practically as the population of Yarmouk has shrunk from 250,000 to 18,000 souls cowering, famished and shivering with pain, starvation and cold. Not only is the Arab world indifferent to the whole situation, one Lebanese journalist has been callus enough to put into the words what certain leaders believe but shrink from saying, ‘the whole situation is the responsibility of Palestinians themselves’.
Irrespective of the brutal non-response of the world the seeds of the whole scenario can be found in the Balfour declaration all those years ago, and the responsibility should be shared not only by the Israelis and their illegal occupation but by the entire international community.
– Rana Abdulla is a Palestinian Canadian writer and activist, originally from the Palestinian village of Balaa near Tulkarem. She is an advocate for refugee rights, and her work has been highlighted by Canadian media. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.