Yarmouk: Stories of building collapses and neighbors killed reverberate around the diaspora through voice-notes and pictures sent almost the minute fleeing residents emerge from the camp. In one, an elderly Palestinian man cries into his phone, “The street has become dust … my house is gone, gone!” to the sound of shelling behind him. Others recount civilians hiding in basements for days on end with no news, or elderly neighbors dying in their homes with nobody to rescue them.
The Yarmouk Camp for Palestinian refugees and the areas of south Damascus have been the site of a grueling “zero-hour” offensive since April 19, as the Syrian government moved to wrest back control of the area from jihadi and rebel groups. On Monday, the last Islamic State fighters pulled out from Yarmouk and Hajar al-Aswad toward the deserts in Syria’s east, marking the first time the Syrian government has been in full control of the capital since the beginning of the Syrian uprising and conflict.
Over the last month that the military operation has played out, the Syrian government’s consolidation over these areas was preceded by extensive “evacuations.” In a repeat of the kind of coercive agreements that have been imposed by the Syrian government and its allies on rebel-held, besieged areas like Daraya since 2016, the three partially besieged rebel-held villages of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem capitulated to reconciliation at the close of April and ultimately accepted forcible deportations north, according to the state news agency SANA. Tahrir al-Sham militants were bused out of northern Yarmouk, before Syrian rebel fighters and their families, as well as Palestinian refugees, in the last rebel-held pockets of south Damascus boarded buses bound for a series of rural camp settlements in Syria’s rebel-held north.
An earlier “de-escalation” agreement reached with Russian guarantees and Egyptian mediation in October 2017 failed to bring an end to violence. The villages have been at partial truce with the Syrian government since 2014.
While the evacuation deals are meant to offer civilians the choice to leave conflict zones and allow the entry of humanitarian aid into war-afflicted areas, those in the areas view them as compulsory in the face of possible reprisals for staying.
Palestinian activist and photographer Hamada Hameed felt he had no choice but to flee south Damascus, given that the rebel-held neighborhood he had called home since fleeing Yarmouk has now been returned to Syrian government and Russian control.
“The biggest mistake someone can make is to stay behind, regardless of what [the Syrian government] says about getting people to stay. Anyone who carried a camera, was an activist at some point … defected from the Syrian military or faces military service, they should not stay,” Hameed says. “Those who leave meanwhile head toward an unknown fate.”
And against the backdrop of the military operations and evacuations are the less widely disseminated scenes captured in the voice-notes and pictures, some of which were obtained by Mada Masr, from civilians who have remained in the south Damascus suburbs and Yarmouk living under almost daily bombardment. While buildings were turned to ruin and Palestinians in and around the camp struggled to survive, the presence of various pro-government Palestinian forces in the battle may be an early indication about the future of a camp whose post-conflict reconstruction may level Yarmouk’s once varied social and political fabric.
At least 21 civilians have been reported killed, and 7,000 people — including 6,200 Palestinian refugees from Syria — displaced from their homes.
Before the Islamic State’s departure from south Damascus, deportations did not go smoothly.
The fifth convoy to leave rebel-held south Damascus, Qafleh raqam al-khamis, was held for almost a week at the last government checkpoint on the road to northern Syria at the beginning of May because of poor coordination between the Russian negotiators who brokered the deportation deal and the Turkish military present in the north. Others, however, blamed the delay on intra-rebel clashes that were taking place nearby. Passengers slept on buses at night, taking shelter from the sun by the roadside during the day.
New arrivals are being housed in camps for internally displaced persons in rural Idlib and Afrin that many inside the camps say are poorly serviced and far from what they signed up for as part of the April “reconciliation” agreement. Some are attempting the perilous journey to get smuggled across the border into Turkey instead.
“There’s little food in the camp … no electricity and the camp is very far from any of the local markets. The closest one is about 20 km away,” explains Palestinian human rights defender Abdallah al-Khateeb, who was in one of the first buses to head north from south Damascus. “During the negotiations, the Russians said they’d contacted the Turkish government and that everyone evacuated would be allowed to enter Jarablus. The first two convoys entered, but the fifth was not allowed.”
According to the North Syria Response Coordination, some 9,250 people eventually evacuated north. However, sources inside the rebel-held villages of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem tell Mada Masr that the original number of names registered for evacuation could have been as high as 17,000 until word got back to civilians in south Damascus about Convoy Number Five and the lack of services being made available in the north, and some decided not to go. Families have been separated as a result.
Following weeks of daily bombardment by Syrian and Russian airstrikes, barrel bombs and artillery, as well as brutal street fighting, many of the south Damascus suburbs are in ruins.
Throughout the military offensive, government supporters raised doubts about the presence of civilians in the area. The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper called into question claims that there are — or were — civilians still inside Yarmouk, and the Central channel of Hmeimem military base Facebook page dismissed what it called “allegations of civilian casualties,” claiming pro-government fighters were “only faced by extremists belonging to the Islamic State terrorist organization.”
However, civilians either inside Yarmouk, or who had recently fled, described how “houses are being destroyed and people are trapped under the rubble.”
London-based monitor Action Group for Palestinians of Syria (AGPS) reported that Palestinian refugee Mahmoud al-Bash, his wife and infant child were rescued alive from under the rubble of their home on April 27 after it was bombarded by pro-government forces several days before. The family had been presumed dead, until Bash was discovered.
Earlier that month, husband and wife Mohamed and Haifa al-Hadba were taking shelter in their home when it was shelled, according to Yarmouk activists. With his wife injured, Mohamed made the difficult choice to carry her by night across the camp to the home of a relative. Hours after arriving, that building was also shelled and both of them died.
Local activists and AGPS say at least 35 Palestinians have been killed so far in this offensive, including 21 civilians.
Almost all of the 6,200 Palestinians who were still inside their homes in Yarmouk at the beginning of the offensive have fled into neighboring areas.
Pro-government forces have been gearing up for the battle for south Damascus since the end of the eastern Ghouta campaign. The front lines were a who’s-who of pro-government militia politics.
Aleppo-based Palestinian militia Liwa al-Quds dispatched forces to Yarmouk in April, fresh from the front-lines of Eastern Ghouta, with one of its leading commanders promising that “after the liberation of Ghouta, we will … liberate Yarmouk.” Syrian military units followed, before Suheil al-Hassan’s Russian-backed Tiger Forces arrived in the area in mid-April. They joined a polyglot Syrian and Palestinian force of some several thousand men that included National Defence Forces, a privately funded Palestinian militia, as well as old-guard Palestinian factions, including Fatah al-Intifada and Ahmad al-Jibril’s Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC).
The northern entrance of Yarmouk was transformed into a military staging-post, where tanks and armoured vehicles sat side-by-side and troop movements were soundtracked by pro-government dabke songs. A so-called “camp of return” hosted by ageing Palestinian resistance fighters was set up to receive newly arrived fighters and calibrate the future of a place once known as the “capital of the Palestinian diaspora.”
Since then, former residents and observers tell Mada Masr that Yarmouk runs the risk of being erased. Should this happen to what was once Syria’s largest Palestinian community, questions will be raised as to the future of the Palestinian-Syrian community itself. Others believe the camp as it existed has gone forever, but that it will ultimately be rebuilt in some form.
An estimated one-fifth of Syria’s pre-war population of 560,000 Palestinians have fled the country. Almost all of the 438,000 who remain are largely reliant on aid. Internally displaced Palestinians in Damascus often talk of impossibly rising rents and prices, while in a post-conflict Syria, Palestinians will likely encounter similar legal difficulties, as Syrian citizens attempting to return to their homes or recreate stable lives. Law 10/2018, effectively the blueprint for the reconstruction of Syria, could dispossess those unable to prove ownership of their homes. And even then, vast swathes of Yarmouk and other camps around the country have been badly destroyed.
Despite all that the civilians of Yarmouk Camp have suffered — military offensives, siege, starvation, detention and displacement — many still believe they will return to the camp one day. Seventy years after partition plans and machine guns in olive groves brought the first Nakba, today it arrives by bus. But with the destruction and possible erasure of Yarmouk, the possibility of rebuilding the political and social history of the camp may already have been demolished forever.