Forget Gaza Now, Please Remember Yarmouk

'Yarmouk was beyond inhumane.'

By Shafiq Morton

My headline is meant to be provocative. If you get p***** off, good. It’s because I’m equally p***** by what is currently called “Palestinian solidarity”.  For so many years “Palestinian solidarity” has remained one-dimensional and fixated on the West Bank and Gaza – as important as they may be.

But there is a bigger Palestinian picture – and my contention is that it has been ignored.  The Palestinian question is not just about Gaza and the West Bank.

According to the UN there are twelve official refugee camps (there are more) in Lebanon (where about 800,000 Palestinians still live in stateless limbo). In Egypt 50,000 Palestinians cannot register as refugees, or be granted permanent residency.

There are ten official camps in Jordan. Until occupation and ISIS there were over 30,000 refugees in Iraq and nine camps in Syria.

Today there are Palestinians in almost every corner of the world. In my own wanderings I have encountered Palestinians in Europe, the US, Libya, the Far East, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Africa. The real Nakba, the real Palestinian catastrophe, is that with seven million refugees we have the biggest exile of modern times.

It is for good reason that the late Edward Said insisted that the Palestinian lot be called a “shattat”, or a “scattering”, as opposed to a “diaspora”. Palestinians were not dispatched stateless and dispossessed into the world because of a divine decree like the Jews, but because of a Zionist colonial project supported by Europe that forcibly displaced two-thirds of its population.

Therefore, I insist that there needs to be a more committed activist focus on the shattat. Those ignored outside the current Palestinian-Israeli paradigm need to be included, or else the whole delineation of being Palestinian will be framed by a notion that Palestinians don’t really exist outside of the occupied territories.

When I toured Lebanese refugee camps in the 1990’s researching my book, Surfing behind the Wall, I encountered open anger from people who told me they’d been forgotten the minute Yasser ‘Arafat and the PLO had left Beirut. However, I was deeply enriched by what I heard. Lebanon was a gripping chapter of Palestinian history I would not have got in Gaza or the West Bank.

And my reporting on the Zionist massacre of Tantura in 1948 would not have been possible to corroborate via independent Palestinian sources without the work of Mustafa al-Wali in the Syrian refugee camps. The same goes for what I learnt in Jordan about the Battle of Karameh.

But the most distressing instance of what I call “geographical amnesia” about Palestinians outside of Palestine is the tragic, bloody and brutal tale of Yarmouk, once home to 150,000 registered refugees and an equal amount of poorer Syrians who also lived there.

Yarmouk was recognized as a refugee camp in 1957 after the 1948 Nakba and evolved into a suburb of Damascus. Before the Syrian disaster, Yarmouk was a thriving commercial hub with shady streets, apartments, shops, restaurants, coffee houses, mosques, schools and factories.

All this was utterly devastated by the Syrian conflict, which overflowed lethally into Palestinian life. Politically, as refugees, the Palestinians were neutrals – non-combatants who should have been subjected to internationally protective conventions.

Urgent pleas at the time for Yarmouk to be declared a safe zone were blithely ignored as both the FSA and Assad’s forces fought battles in and around its streets. Attempts by those in Yarmouk to guard it from the conflict backfired when the FSA took control. In 2012 Assad besieged Yarmouk, denying the passage of aid and cutting off its water, electricity and food supplies.

Yarmouk, as The Guardian put it, became the “worst place in Syria”.  Entrapped by a circle of steel, those who essentially had nothing to do with the conflict, became its worst victims as they starved to death in the rubble.

Some analysts say that Assad’s brutality was prompted by fears that Yarmouk was less than ten kilometres from his Damascus headquarters. Others that he’d been angered by Hamas leader Khalid Mesha’al – who’d lived in Yarmouk – endorsing the Syrian revolution after he’d left for the Gulf.

The upshot was that Yarmouk would be subjected to unimaginable terror as the barrel bombs rained down. When the UN finally managed to get aid through in February 2014, so bad was the situation that officials had to go for trauma counseling.

As one UN officer described it: “it (Yarmouk) was beyond inhumane.”

What was once one of Damascus’ thriving suburbs was now an eerily hushed Armageddon-like landscape. The 18,000 remaining Yarmouk survivors queued like ghosts in a spectacle as iconic as those of the Nazi camps – an exhausted, haggard and hungry mass of humanity crowding a broken street for food.

But sadly, the image – which featured prominently on the wires – would prove to be just another chapter in the tragic, but forgotten saga of Yarmouk. That picture alone should have sent Palestine solidarity movements marching in the streets of the world’s capitals in their thousands, yet it didn’t. There was a ripple if indignation, and then nothing.

Early this year Yarmouk was visited by the forces of ISIS now aligned with Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat an-Nusra, keen to use Yarmouk as a foothold to get into Damascus. Once again, those of Yarmouk were caught in the crossfire.

For those trapped inside, it was a question of changing tormentors from Assad to ISIS and the An-Nusra front, with a 16 year-old Amjad Yaquub telling an AFP reporter that ISIS goons had played “football” with a human head – at least Assad’s bullies hadn’t done that.

Historically, Yarmouk is one of our modern tragedies – a supreme irony given that in 636 CE Muslim forces, led by Khalid ibn Walid, defeated the mighty Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk. It’s a case of going from one of the highest moments to one of the lowest.

And this time there are no Zionists to blame; only Arabs, only Muslims and only us. Over 100, 000 Palestinians have disappeared, almost without trace, into the black hole that is now the Syrian refugee crisis. Our silence has been deafening and I would suggest that our complicity is complete.

 – Shafiq Morton is a journalist and a presenter at Voice of the Cape radio station. He contributed this article to

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