Damascus refugees out of food

By Martin Chulov

Conditions dramatically decline for desperate inhabitants of Palestinian camp blockaded by Syrian troops.

Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus queue in February for UN aid. Photo / AP
Residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk in Damascus queue in February for UN aid. Photo / AP

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

Food packages have 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 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 UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), since the first pleas for help 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," organisation spokesman Chris Gunness told the Observer..

"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, 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.

To keep the remaining residents from starving, UNRWA says it needs to deliver at least 700 food parcels a day, each of which feeds five to eight people. It has managed to get in only 100 a 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, brokered in January between all sides including a Palestinian faction that supports the Syrian Government, broke down last month. Ever since, Syrian troops have been on the offensive near the camp, in southwestern 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."

The crisis in Yarmouk is unfolding as new UN documents appear to support a widespread opposition claim that the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is using starvation tactics as a weapon of war. The documents, obtained by Foreign Policy magazine, track the success of the UN's world food programme in the two months since the UN 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. Food has also remained critically short in other opposition-held parts of the country, including Homs, which has been under an unrelenting attack for six months.

- Observer

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