YARMOUK, Syria — Founded in 1957 as a home for Palestinian refugees who had lost their land in Israel, Yarmouk refugee camp is now the center of the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria. The camp has been under siege by the Syrian government for more than two years, and in recent weeks has become the center of fighting between government forces, rebels and Islamic State militants.
Before the war the camp was home to between 150,000 and 200,000 Palestinian refugees and, despite being called a camp, was actually a vibrant suburb of Damascus. Residents lived in concrete houses instead of tents and 650,000 Syrians also lived in the area.
Now the neighborhood is in ruins and most have fled. Of the original inhabitants, just 18,000 remain. The neighborhood had initially remained neutral at the start of the war, but a series of events including a bombing raid that the government claims was an accident led to violent clashes and the neighborhood came under rebel control.
The government responded by placing Yarmouk under a siege. Inside the camp there has regularly been sporadic fighting between different groups and bombing and artillery raids by Syrian forces. Syrian soldiers stationed just outside have strict control over who is allowed to enter and leave the camp.
There is no electricity and food and water rations are stretched at best and non-existent at worst. Diseases and hunger are widespread and many people are dying of starvation. Aid workers have had very limited access to the camp but have not been able to provide very much food or aid. On the few occasions aid workers have been allowed in, they have only been able to provide enough food for a few hundred families and offer basic medical assistance.
The Syrian government has been wary of allowing too much aid into Yarmouk as its objective is to starve out rebel fighters. The government has also been wary of allowing medical supplies to enter the camp out of fear they may be used to treat rebel fighters. But the real victims of this strategy are civilians, as some of the rebel groups, particularly Islamic militants, have been known to hoard food and supplies for themselves.
At the start of April the situation took a turn for the worse as Islamic State militants entered the camp. Fighting has intensified and ISIS is now thought to be in control of 90 percent of Yarmouk.
Palestinian militants and Syrian rebels are fighting against ISIS and are trying to evacuate civilians. More than 2,000 people have fled since ISIS launched their offensive on Yarmouk.
The United Nations and Palestinian Liberation Organization have stepped up calls for a plan to evacuate civilians to safety. Residents are continuing to flee but many are trapped in the fighting or in ISIS-held parts of the neighborhood. But on the bright side, if the situation results in a mobilized effort to evacuate people from the camp, there may be a silver lining.
– Matt Lesso