BEIRUT – Lugging a plastic bag carrying the clothes and the few food scraps she could salvage, Umm Samir set out from her ruined home and crawled through the pre-dawn gloom on her second journey into exile in 68 years.
In the difficult days since, she has made her way from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern edge of Damascus to Beirut, where she now confronts the bitter reality of again becoming a refugee, the lifelong dream of returning to her birthplace now further away than ever.
“I always thought that the only time I would move from Yarmouk would be back to Palestine,” she said from a tiny, airless basement in the Sabra-Shatila Palestinian camp in the heart of the Lebanese capital, where the family sought sanctuary three days ago. “Now I find myself here.”
Across the room, Samir’s daughter, son-in-law, and five of their 10 children were squatting silently on the floor. The children’s father, Abu Sameer, had a hunched and defeated air, while their mother, Umm Sameer, shifted quickly between anger and sorrow.
“I didn’t expect this at all,” said Umm Sameer of the unrelenting siege of the Yarmouk camp that had seen many of those who remain starved to the point of death. “I didn’t think the (Syrian) regime would do this to our people.
“The veil has dropped,” she said. “We can see clearly how we were used.”
Over the past three weeks, the siege of Yarmouk, the camp held up by Syria over four decades as a symbol of its commitment to the Palestinian cause, has reached a nadir.
Many of those who remain have been unable to eat, or leave. Others, like Abu Sameer and his family, decided that a suicide run for the camp’s closely guarded borders was a better bet than foraging for scraps in abandoned buildings and pillaged orchards.
“We made it in small groups, but five of our children were left behind,” said Abu Sameer. “It was just too dangerous to bring them. “We were going to die,” he said of his decision to leave. “We had no choice.”
The desperate plight of those who left behind was showcased last month through pleas by the United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA) and stories in The Observer. Both revealed the scale of an unfolding catastrophe starkly at odds with a recent U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that humanitarian aid be delivered to all those caught up in Syria’s unrelenting war.
Last week, after a demand from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, things changed in Yarmouk, with food parcels reaching some of those who needed them for the first time in 15 days.
The UNRWA reported that Syrian officials had allowed close to 700 parcels, each capable of feeding between five and eight people, into the camp. The delivery eases an immediate crisis, but fails to address a profound stockpile deficit caused by months of delayed deliveries earlier in the year.
And the new supplies have not reached all those who need them. One Yarmouk resident, who asked not to be named, was almost too exhausted to make himself heard on the phone recently.
“It is a nightmare,” he said. “For four months we have been eating rice and grass, radishes and greens.”
Asked why he had not tried to leave, he said: “If we are caught, it is straight to the Palestine Branch (an intelligence division). Anyone who goes in there does not come out. If they do manage to, they have been reborn. So many people have been disappeared.”
Many of the Yarmouk exiles say the name of their former home will soon be etched into infamy in the same way that Sabra-Shatila was 32 years ago, when more than 1,000 Palestinians were massacred by Christian militias who at the time were allied to the occupying Israeli Army.
The ghosts of 1982 remain deeply synonymous with Palestinian suffering. But some of the new arrivals say the scale of the current horrors in Yarmouk and other Syrian camps may soon eclipse even such a painful episode.
“Iran and Syria pretend to be against Israel,” but it is a marketing ploy, said Umm Ibrahim, the matriarch of a another Yarmouk family that had arrived in Sabra-Shatila in recent weeks.
“The Golan Heights had been silent for how long?’ ” she asked rhetorically. “The Palestinian resistance used to come through Lebanon to fight Israel. They weren’t allowed through Syrian land. Not even a bird was allowed to fly across the border fence.”
Resentment seethed among both families of new refugees.
“The Arabs are bigger enemies than the Israelis,” said Umm Sameer. “They don’t behave like this to their worst enemies.”
Unwanted in Syria, those fleeing Yarmouk are hardly made to feel at home in Lebanon either. New arrivals are given a one-week visa, which requires them to report to authorities or face a $200 fine, which few among them can afford. While UNRWA and other aid organizations offer some food assistance and living space, conditions are far worse in Lebanon than in pre-war Syria.
“They didn’t care about us at all,” said Umm Samir, who was too young to remember her first journey to exile in 1948 from the Palestinian town of Safed, in what is now Israel, and too anguished to want to recall her second journey last month.
“I thought that if I ever leave my home again before I die, it would be to go back to Palestine.”
Outside Sabra-Shatila, in the nearby Palestinian Embassy, senior official Qassem Abbas, who is responsible for Yarmouk arrivals, tries to play down the scale of the crisis.
“Things have actually improved in recent weeks,” he said. “They haven’t worsened. The Palestinian leadership has decided to take a position of neutrality. This brought us closer to the Syrian regime, despite everything that has happened. It was a difficult decision, but it made us less biased.
“This is a chess game being played by all those in the region,” he said of the Syrian war. “But there is only one real mastermind, America. It serves their interests so they can stay in the region.”
Back in the camp, the new arrivals were having none of that. “Our so-called leaders have their own reasons for their closeness to the Syrian regime,” said Umm Sameer. “And it has nothing to do with us. Shame on them and their silence.”
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