Wesam is a young Palestinian who is active in Jafra, a community organisation that assists the people of the Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Syria. He kindly and graciously agreed to an audio interview for the Italian and International public, which he even would have given in English, if the interviewer were not a native speaker of Arabic. This interview is the English translation of the Italian translation of the Arabic original. (Interview and Italian translation by Fouad Rouieha and English translation by Mary Rizzo)
Let’s start by describing what Yarmouk is…
The Yarmouk refugee camp is in the south of Damascus. It extends for over seven square kilometres and is close to central districts such as Midan Zahir. In short, it is part of the urban fabric of the capital. Before the start of the revolt there were almost 700,000 residents, 220,000 of them Palestinian in origin and the others Syrians. The camp was built in 1957, the majority of Palestinians who live there are descendants of the refugees of ’48, especially from the north of Palestine, to which were added those from Jordan in ’67 and ’70. Before the Syrian revolution Yarmouk was economically very dynamic as an area, it was considered the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. Here we had a vast market, there was great commercial fervour, but also political and social passion, a cultural vibrancy that made it one of the leading cultural centres of Damascus, the place where events and festivals were held. Many famous artists are from Yarmouk. A neighbourhood like the others, particularly economically vibrant, the streets were lined with shops and restaurants frequented by all the Damascene people. On weekends and holidays, the streets were so full that it was difficult to walk. In short, a crowded neighbourhood and one that was considered as very safe.
You said that there was also political activism, but being politically active in Syria was a taboo, there was extensive control and the repression was used. Was this different for the Palestinians?
I was referring to political activism with regard to the Palestinian cause, which had nothing to do with the situation in Syria. Yarmouk was one of the main headquarters of the Palestinian factions such as the Popular Front, Hamas, the Popular Front General Command, Islamic Jihad, Fatah … the political activity allowed involved the camp internally and Palestine, never anything that could relate to Syria directly. Sometimes Syrians also attended the, especially those who lived in the camp. As long as we were talking about Palestine there were no problems, as long as no one approached Syrian politics in any way.
How was the co-existence between Syrians and Syrian-Palestinians, was there integration or was there a tendency towards forming a ghetto-type division?
Among ourselves no one noticed any differences. We had been living together for 50/60 years. Mixed marriages are common and among us we are very mixed. Then it must be mentioned that often the same family is divided between the two nations, northern Palestine and southern Syria were not divided and before the Palestinian exile there were already families and clans that lived on both sides of the border. There is not a distinct division between Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Jordanians, there are always relationships of friendship and parenthood.
They say that at the start of the revolution the Syrian Palestinians of the camps tried to stay out of it….
We were not trying to stay out of it, there was a huge debate on whether to let the Yarmouk camp enter into the heart of the dispute. Some thought that the Yarmouk activist who would have wanted to join the revolution would have to do it out of the camp without involving the camp. We knew that if Yarmouk was targeted they would have would hit us with particular force and this is what happened, unfortunately. Then there was a circulation of the idea that Yarmouk could be a safe place for the Syrians fleeing their homes, for the wounded, to allow access to medicine and food. This is the role that the camp had tried to play in the first two years. When there were clashes in the areas of Al Hajar Aswad or Tadamon, Yarmouk was a point of distribution of medicine and aid, and we welcomed the refugees. Before them we had welcomed people of Homs, so many families. We opened shelters for them, taking advantage of the schools of the UNRWA (an agency of the UN dedicated to Palestinian refugees translator’s note) and public ones. It was a safe haven for these people, where they were welcomed, fed and housed. When the General Command had pushed some of us to take up arms against the Free Army, Yarmouk was directly involved in the fighting, and the Free Army entered the camp and the regime targeted it just like it had the other districts of the city.
I’d heard that the Free Army was behind some abuses.
There was not just one part that had entered into Yarmouk, but a variety of actors, among which common criminals who disguised themselves as revolutionaries. One example is the “Brigade of the Sons of the Golan” which is simply just a gang that was guilty of kidnapping and threats. They burnt down the homes of some families and looted the homes of others. This lasted for around six months, then they were forced out by the brigades of the Free Army, some of which constituted of Palestinians, others of Syrians.
What are the positions of the Palestinians factions in the camp in regards to the Syrian revolution?
There was a division. On the one side the groups connected to the Popular Front General Command and Fatah el Intifada, fighting on the side of the loyalists. The groups close to Hamas and the independent groups instead fought against the regime. The division you see in the Syrian-Palestinian society mirrors that which you see in the Syrian population.
How many people are living in the camp today?
Our data is a bit different from that of the UNRWA. We think there are between 25 and 30,000 people, of whom about 5,000 Syrians, the rest are Palestinians . Those remaining are the people who have no other place to go, there are no places in the shelters. They are the poorest of the poor, both Palestinians and Syrians, people who have no money to rent a house and did not find place in centres or camps. Some people lived for a while in various public parks in Damascus and then came back, there are those who could not flee for fear that that their child would be forced into military service. Some are here just because they have no papers, no identity card and thus could not get out. In Yarmouk there are 30,000 civilians, if there were 30,000 fighters here, Damascus would have fallen in 2 days, just use logic. Among the gunmen inside the camp there are more or less 1,000 Palestinians and 500 Syrians, these are the fighters in the camp. The Palestinians originate from Yarmouk itself and have formed defence committees, not only and not so much against the regime, but also for internal security because now there are no institutions, but only anarchy. There has to be someone to defend people from the thieves, abductions, etc … In short, they also serve a policing function, sometimes even intervening to quell family problems.
How would you describe the humanitarian situation today?
Yarmouk is living under a partial siege since December 2012. This means that civilians could leave and return with whatever they could carry, but of course they could not let food trucks in. Since the beginning of the siege we were able to get only 4 trucks to enter, which has caused the arrest of some volunteers and the death of Khaled Bakrawi. In June of 2013 the total siege began, no one can enter or leave, neither food nor medicine nor other goods are allowed to enter the Yarmouk camp. After 4 months, extreme cases of malnutrition started to emerge, and the people started to die. So far we have registered 154 cases of death by starvation, without considering the cases where hunger is a only factor. There is still a lack of food, in the last two months there have been diplomatic attempts, but all that has actually entered are 12,000 food baskets, each of which is enough to feed a family of 4 for 10 days. So whoever received one of them, today has no more food. Then came 5,000 food bags containing jam, dates and a bit of bread. The baskets were able to get in by the UNRWA , the 4000/5000 food bags we ourselves brought in.
With regard to medicine and the health situation: first there was only one functioning hospital in the field of Yarmouk , the Palestine Hospital, which has been declared closed for lack of energy (mazots, a kind of diesel that is used in generators and boilers translator’s note). It’s been almost 13 months since the electricity has been cut in the camp, so the hospital can only rely on generators. Then there is no medicine and the only doctor present in Yarmouk was killed six months ago during a bombing, as he was leaving the hospital itself. Now the people who work in health care are nurses, their work is based on their experience, but they are not doctors, certainly not specialists. Last month we were able to get out of the camp 400 urgent cases. During the evacuation of some were arrested by the security forces of the regime, however, and today we have some cases that would need to be evacuated , but it is no longer possible to allow civilians to leave.
What is life like for the average person in Yarmouk? I imagine it is unlikely that they are able to work.
Work no longer exists in the camp, the access roads are closed and there is no movement for any kind of trade. The main problem is the high price of food, because something does manage to get inside as contraband. A month and a half ago a kilo of rice cost about 12,000 Syrian pounds , more or less the equivalent of $70, and in the last month the price went down slightly, but we consider that three years ago it cost $1 and in the areas surrounding the camp it still costs $1, that is, it costs 70 times less. One litre of generator fuel costs between 600 and 700 Syrian pounds, in the rest of Damascus it costs 100 pounds, and moreover there is none of it to be found in the camp. Some NGOs, including our Jafra Foundation, have self-production agricultural projects in the camp. In the winter it did not work very well because the weather was not helping, but now it’s getting better. Today, the inhabitants of Yarmouk spend their days in search of food. There are those who collect grass from the meadows, and so far we have 5 registered deaths due to the regime’s snipers targeting these fields. The others just exist inside the camp, exploring the abandoned houses in search of food, a fistful of rice or flour, some spices or anything that is edible. This is how they spend their lives.
During the past months, when there were some attempts to bring aid into the camp there were some attacks against the convoy and the regime accused the fighters of the opposition.
There were no direct attacks, but sometimes there have been some shootings of which we haven’t been able to pin down the origin. Both sides accuse one another: the militia accuses the General Command and the General Command accuses the armed Islamists. In reality, there have been some times when the shooting of the militias has impeded distribution, but honestly I don’t think that that was their objective: they are under siege just like everyone else, no one is under siege by his own doing, it is more likely that in the attempt to fight the loyalist forces or to respond to attacks the humanitarian convoy were caught in the crossfire.
Would you like to close by making an appeal to the Italian general public?
In Yarmouk , there are nearly 30,000 people, including 1,200 children, many of whom were born under siege. I was in Yarmouk three months ago, the children no longer know what flavour food has, someone is dreaming of tasting a potato or eating something sweet or sugar. There are elderly people who need medication for their blood pressure, heart problems or for diabetes, medicines that are very common, but the lack of which is causing the death of these elderly people. The wounded often end in amputations because there are no instruments for basic and simple treatment, there is a total lack of medicine and doctors. We need vaccines for our children. The problems are enormous, the children now have no idea of what it means to live a normal life, they can’t imagine what is outside the camp, they are dreaming of electrical energy, television, the normal and simple things for those who live just a few kilometres from them. These children, these civilians, what fault do they have that they should have to suffer so much? What is happening in Yarmouk is contrary to every human principle, contrary to every patriotic principle or Panarab principle of which the regime prides itself as being at the forefront.