Damascus refugees face starvation

Syrian blockade of camp raises fears for 18,000 people inside

by Martin Chulov

The Observer

The desperate residents of a besieged district of Damascus were expected to run out of food on Sunday, leaving 18,000 people facing starvation and leading relief agencies to declare the crisis “unprecedented in living memory.”

Food packages had not been delivered to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp for 10 days, and Syrian authorities were not expected to allow food trucks in over the Easter weekend.

Residents have resorted to eating leaves and animal feed. Some say they cannot get access even to scraps, as a desperate blockade by government forces, in place for nearly 18 months, continues to cut off supplies.

Syrian officials have allowed only sporadic access to Yarmouk — to relief groups led by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) — since the first pleas for help from residents early last year.

“It is unprecedented in living memory for a UNRWA-assisted population to be subject to abject desperation in this way and the sheer humanitarian facts cry out for a response,” organization spokesman Chris Gunness said Saturday. “Without that, the humanity of all of us must be seriously questioned.

“It is an affront to all of us that in a capital city of a member state, women are dying in childbirth for lack of medical care, there are incidents of malnutrition among infants and people are resorting to eating animal feed.”

Once the biggest Palestinian camp in Syria — held up as a beacon of the regime’s support for the Palestinian cause — Yarmouk is now a husk, its bombed-out buildings home to an ever-decreasing number of desperate residents and opposition fighters.

Several thousand Syrian citizens are also living among the Palestinians. They also remain without access to food supplies.

To keep the remaining residents from starving, UNRWA says it needs to deliver at least 700 food parcels per day, each of which feeds five to eight people. It has only managed to get in 100 per day on average since the start of the year.

However, conditions have drastically worsened in recent weeks, with all supplies stopped amid regime demands that rebel groups inside surrender.

An agreement to allow unfettered access to Yarmouk, which was brokered in January between all sides, including a Palestinian faction that supports the Syrian government, broke down last month.

Ever since then, Syrian troops have been on the offensive near the camp, which weaves into the southwestern suburbs of Damascus.

“We’ve got nothing,” said Abu Issa, 60, a resident of Yarmouk. “No food, no money. We are sharing the animals’ food by living on grass we get from the gardens.

“The Syrian Army do not allow anything to get in unless the rebels leave the camp, and the rebels refuse to leave — and we are stuck between,” she added.

“I have three sons; they were desperate to leave the camp by any means. A smuggler promised to take them out and then outside of Syria, but they were arrested at the first checkpoint and I know nothing about them, if they’re dead or alive.”

The crisis in Yarmouk is unfolding as new U.N. documents appear to support a widespread opposition claim that the regime of President Bashar Assad is using starvation tactics as a weapon of war. The documents, obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Programme in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding immediate humanitarian access to aid workers.

The documents show that more food parcels have reached those in need than before the resolution was passed, but that was due to families fleeing to regime-controlled areas where food is more readily available. Food has also remained critically short in other opposition-held parts of the country, including the Old City area of Homs, which has been under an unrelenting attack for six months.

Before the war, food and water were abundant in all parts of the country. However, areas far from the Turkish, Jordanian and Lebanese borders — which are still enjoying some cross-frontier trade — are now reporting increasing scarcity in places that rely solely on regime supply lines, including Homs.

The U.N. undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, has told the Security Council that 240,000 people remain besieged across Syria. Most have little access to essentials.

Staggering numbers continue to define the Syrian violence, which is now into its fourth year and shows little sign of abating. More than 9 million people are in need of constant humanitarian assistance, a similar number have been internally displaced, and more than 2 million have fled across borders. In addition, more than 150,000 people have been killed.

The United Nations has made a series of strident statements, but the Security Council has remained largely unable to shape events, with Syrian allies Russia and China opposing measures to limit the regime’s influence.