Palestinian Camp in Syria Faces Starvation

An imam in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus has issued a fatwa allowing people to eat the meat of cats, donkeys and dogs to avoid starvation.

al-monitor People inspect damaged areas after what activists said were missiles fired by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, July 24, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Ward Al-Keswani.

Topics covered

syrian refugees, syrian crisis, syrian conflict, humanitarian crisis, fatwa, damascus, blockade

Oct 27, 2013

In the southern region of Damascus, repeated civilian appeals warning against a humanitarian catastrophe that could befall thousands of civilians as a result of the deadly monthslong siege imposed by the regime’s forces have failed to draw the attention of the international community.

As the world was busy with the issue of the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and as the anti-regime Syrian National Coalition was busy deciding about whether or not to go to the Geneva II Conference, the toll of victims in that region increased and the humanitarian situation degenerated day after day. This was a result of an acute shortage in various critical medical supplies, medicines and basic foodstuffs.

The situation prompted mosque sheikhs — such as Sheikh Mohammed Abu al-Khair, the imam of the Palestine Mosque in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp that is currently under siege in the southern region — to issue a fatwa allowing people to eat the meat of cats, donkeys and dogs trapped in the camp, now that a desperate stage of need has been reached.

The fatwa is the first of its kind in Damascus and the second in Syria, after a similar one issued in Homs. While everyone else was busy with their plans, the regime started to reap the fruits of its own plan, which aimed at weakening the armed opposition and civilians in that region by starving them, preventing vital supplies from reaching them and letting them suffer harsh conditions by imposing a strict blockade and then storming the region again. This is according to a media activist in the Yarmouk refugee camp, Yazen Akkaoui, who added, “Unfortunately, we realized this plan only too late.”

Indeed, about a week ago regime forces managed to regain control of the Husseinia and al-Thiabiya neighborhoods in the southern region, according to the official media outlet of the regime. In addition, activists confirmed the fall of nearly 130 civilian martyrs during battles that took place there. In the first days of Eid al-Adha, the regime started to expand its operations and intensify its air raids and concentrated bombing using various types of shells and short-range rockets in an attempt to gain ground over two main areas: the Yarmouk Refugee Camp … and the Hujeira region.

Bullets and missiles were the only response the besieged people got to their previous appeals to be rescued from starvation. Although it has been several days since the start of the military operation — likened by activists to a “scorched earth” policy, as it annihilates both humans and built-up areas — only a few words of condemnation were uttered by George Sabra of the National Coalition. These words were clearly not enough to stop civilians from falling prey to bullets or hunger.

Rami Al-Sayyed, a member of the opposition local council in the Al-Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood, saw this as ignorance in “field geography." He said, "Every time they talk about the siege and eating cats and dogs, they all mention the two regions of East Gouta and Moadamiya al-Sham and neglect the southern region of Damascus!” This has had a negative impact on the civilians, who have seen themselves fall victim to neglect, much like the neglect the government of the regime had shown their neighborhoods previously.

This laxity and negligence in shedding light on the situation before the international community — in a bid to curb the worsening tragedy — was also exploited by the regime in order to launch its new campaign. Other factors were also involved. First, the regime reduced the armed opposition forces’ weapons and ammunition supplies in that region through continued skirmishes on various key areas for months on end, without giving them the opportunity to resupply as a result of the tight siege.

Second, there were talks of a truce between the opposition and the regime forces in that region mediated by the Palestinian National Commission in the Yarmouk camp, as well as reports of an agreement between the delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organization (during its recent visit to Damascus) and the regime to open the Yarmouk crossing to civilian traffic. As negotiations were underway to achieve this goal, the regime surprised them by launching its campaign on the southern neighborhoods. Both the timing and the method were unexpected.

Third, according to Sayed, there is what can be called an “unannounced complicity” aimed at delaying the decisive battle of Damascus to suit the interests of some opposition members as a result of the weak support provided by the coalition to the Free Syrian Army forces operating there. He said, “They received scarce support!”

All of these factors increased the capability and flexibility of the regime in its fight to regain control over the region.

On a humanitarian level, after the complete closure of the Yarmouk crossing, residents had to resort to a second escape to survive: the Sbeneh checkpoint. Many were forced to spend days near the checkpoint in hopes of having it open for just a few minutes. These minutes would be valuable because they would help hundreds of sick and elderly people suffering from chronic diseases and malnutrition, which could be fatal if not addressed.

Alaa, one of those under siege, told us how he tried to get his sick grandmother out of the Yarmouk camp to another region through the checkpoint. “After my grandmother's health had deteriorated due to malnutrition, I decided to take her out through the Sbeneh checkpoint. When I arrived there, I saw hundreds of sick and elderly people spread all around the barrier waiting to be allowed to pass. The regime soldiers only allowed a small number of individuals to pass. Those had connections. The rest were forbidden from crossing. When I tried to get my sick grandmother out, the army officer forbade us and mockingly said, ‘Throw her away, she’s a dead woman!’”

Unfortunately, Alaa’s 92-year-old grandmother died the day following the interview due to dehydration. She was the fourth person to die in the camp because of the blockade.

About 600,000 civilians in the southern region were hoping to find someone who could intervene to stop the human tragedy and open a humanitarian corridor that could allow them to escape death or have access to lifesaving food and medicine. When they found that their appeals were not heeded, they decided to respond to the regime’s “hunger or surrender” campaign. A number of residents went on a hunger strike to provide food to young children. They called this campaign, “Yes to Hunger, No to Surrender.”

Although the blockade imposed by the regime on the region is deemed a war crime according to a statement issued by the Palestinian Association for Human Rights-Syria, the regime has taken it to another level by launching a broad military campaign without opening humanitarian corridors for civilians to escape the crossfire. This is also considered a war crime, according to Alaa Abboud, spokesman for the association. Civilians in the remaining 12 districts currently face two mortality risks: the intense bombardment of their homes and neighborhoods, and hunger and disease. Given that many appeals and fatwas to eat cat meat  have not pushed any party to take action, the results could be disastrous. The blockade and the campaign carried out by the regime in Eid al-Adha might turn thousands of civilians in the southern region into victims of silence and... the Eid!

Continue reading this article by registering at no cost and get unlimited access to:
  • Al-Monitor Archives
  • The Week in Review
  • Exclusive Events
  • Invitation-only Briefings

More from  Mahmoud Sarhan