By Franklin Lamb – Yarmouk camp, Damascus
A few thoughts rushed through my mind when I saw a distraught looking woman sitting alone, tightly holding two babies, at one corner of the vast parking lot of the central Damascus bus station known as Al-Soumariyeh . It is from here where inexpensive transportation can be had for those traveling west, east, north and south.
One thought was about a character out of a Charles Dickens novel and the other was ‘waif, frail, malnourished, frightened’, so the lady, holding the babies appeared. She managed a polite but weak smile as I passed and she said “hello.”
Long story made short, the lady and I chatted and it turned out that Souha was fleeing the al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood on the southern edge of Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp. This is one of the ‘hot-line’ areas of Yarmouk, where on 12/16/12 approximately 400 Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra Front) militia fighters joined by various other salafist jihadists defeated Palestinian “popular committees” fighters supposedly loyal to Ahmed Jabil’s, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-GC (PFLP-GC). There are various unconfirmed estimates of how many ‘General Command’ fighters defected during the fighting to the rebel forces, but the PFLP-GC admits that some did. Also in the camp are some fighters from the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Popular Front (PFLP).
Souha who is studying English literature, had lost her husband and was trying to travel to Ein el Helwe refugee camp in Saida, Lebanon. She had the name of a distant relative, she thought was still living in Ein el Helwe, but she was unsure how to find her but knew that she desperately needed to get out of Syria.
Nearly 70% (UNWRA puts the figure at 90%) of the 180,000 Yarmouk camp residents in the 2.1 square-kilometer camp area have, as of this morning fled. This figure was provided by, Anwar Raja, politburo member of the ‘General Command” with whom I had a three hour meeting during the night of 12/18/2012 inside the north edge of Yarmouk. Any camp resident with a MTN or Syriatel mobile phone got a text message, from the Syrian military to leave the camp for their own safety.
Souha asked me if I had heard about the problems of the Palestinian people and explained that she fled the bombing at Yarmouk camp and that most of her neighbors also scattered. Some of the thousands of refugees who continue to flee Yarmouk can be seen today near central Damascus, and sitting in the streets of Midan. These areas are still safe. Other are huddled in parks and camped under concrete underpasses, in schools, mosques and basically anywhere they can find a spot. Many are sleeping on sidewalks at al-Sabaa Bahrat square. A friend and I spoke last night to a family of four who had only thin UNCHR blankets for the night.
Souha said she was afraid to seek safety in a Mosque because they are no longer a safe refuge and she explained that she passed about a dozen bodies on the steps and front ground next to the Abdul Qader Al-Hosseini mosque as she left Yarmouk.
Happy to learn that there are actually non-stop vans going from central Damascus to Saida, Lebanon, without having to change vehicles, we found the driver, agreed on a price of 30 LL (about $45) for Souha and the same price for her two babies. I insisted on a two-for-one price for the little ones and since it was starting to get dark, the nice fellow agreed. I gave Souha what money I had and also contact information for friends in Lebanon who I knew would help her.
As the van pulled off she waved from the window and I could not help thinking that she may not get much help from the Lebanese government on arriving. Yet I knew that Palestinians there would assist her. I recalled the words of the late murdered Khalil al Wazir (Abu Jihad) when he explained nearly three decades ago, to this observer and the American journalist, Janet Stevens,: “At the end of the day, we Palestinians can rely only on ourselves.” I did not dwell much on his words at the time but since then I have come to understand very well what the great Resistance leader meant.
Yesterday morning I assumed Souha was in Lebanon and had arrived to Saida. Then I began to hear the unsettling news of long lines at the Maznaa crossing from Syria into Lebanon. The news got worse. Thousands of Palestinian refugees were lined up, some waiting for 10 hours or more to cross and many being refused entry into by Lebanese General Security because of “inadequate documents.” Many right now are being forced to return to Damascus.
Lebanon has an international humanitarian duty to ease entry and to assist refugees, as required by well-established and globally accepted international law. But with the exception of Israel, Lebanon has the worst human rights record toward Palestinians than any country on earth. The Lebanese Parliament still refuses to grant Palestinian refugees in Lebanon the elementary right to work or to own a home. Even though according to various economic studies, if Palestinians could work, they would help dramatically to build Lebanon’s weak economy.
During the morning of 12/19/12 the news got even worse regarding Souha. Someone from Reuters sent me a published photo showing her stuck on a bus at Maznaa for over 12 hours. According to one report she was forced to return to Damascus. Wherever Souha is she is hopefully someone is helping her.
Ahmed Jebril, an ally of the Syrian government is blaming ‘foreign paid terrorists’ for the attack that is forcing the emptying of Yarmouk and also the rather quick defeat of his fighters. He and his GC staff told this observer that the General Command had no plans to attempt to return to Yarmouk. Reports from the camp claim that more than half of the GC’s 1000 fighters, mainly younger ones, defected to the rebels. It is difficult to know the truth, but it is fairly clear that Yarmouk has substantially been emptied and that government forces are surrounding the camp, presumably in preparation for a massive counter-attack and or aerial bombardment.
One statement that Ahmed Jebril, who contrary to a New York Times report, has not fled to Iran or Tartous, made that is probably accurate is that “As Yarmouk goes, so goes Damascus. As Damascus goes, so goes Syria”. Jebril’s aid Anwar Raja said that the camp will be used by the rebels to destroy the airport and to launch their “final assault” into the center of Damascus. They showed this observer fragments of ‘home made’ weapons similar to those collected from around Syria by military intelligence who in late October briefed this observer.
The near term will reveal the fate of Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp and who, in the coming battle, are the winners. But it is sure that Souha and all Palestinian refugees ethnically cleansed from their homes in Palestine are once again the losers.
– Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.