From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters
by Gerry Emmett
“I don’t count on any government. I count on people who are able to amplify our voices. I count on them to come out and speak. I count on people, not governments. Our cause is a human one before it is a political one.” –Hakim Saeid, photographer, Yarmouk
“In terms of what people can do, I’ll give you a good example: Kobane. People gave it attention and aid was sent there.” –Hassan, activist, Yarmouk
After long silence, the world’s attention was once more belatedly drawn to the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, Syria. This time, it was the invasion of the camp April 3 by IS/Daesh terrorists, facilitated by another fundamentalist faction, Jabhat al-Nusra. JaN has been occupying the camp for months, imposing previously unseen religious strictures on residents.
ASSAD BARREL BOMBS CIVILIANS
IS may or may not have pulled back for the moment, following clashes with indigenous forces in which dozens were reported killed. The Assad regime has also continued to rain barrel bombs down, indiscriminately, killing civilians and damaging the one operating hospital. Civilians attempt to flee when possible, but the regime’s siege that let hundreds of IS terrorists into the camp is seldom porous enough to allow anyone to leave.
As activist Qusai Zakarya of Moadamiya in Damascus put it, “Believe me, infants would not be starving in my hometown if regime sieges could be evaded through tunnels or bribes. Those [IS] resources got in because the regime allowed them to enter.” It is the same pattern of tacit collaboration seen elsewhere in Syria.
The story of Yarmouk is one of the most significant to emerge from the Syrian Revolution. It was the largest of a dozen Palestinian refugee camps in Syria, home to over 150,000 Palestinians as well as hundreds of thousands of Syrians. The population represented all classes, from the very poor to the wealthy, and all the Palestinian political factions. It was considered by many as the capital of the diaspora, a center of culture and thought.
At the beginning of the Revolution, Palestinians tried to remain formally neutral. Assad used his proxy militia, the PFLP-GC, as well as the private militia funded by a local millionaire, in an attempt to intimidate the people into supporting his regime. The inevitable breakdown of that situation led to a regime-imposed siege that has lasted two years. The population has been reduced to 18,000—some estimate even fewer—most of them once again refugees. Hundreds have been killed by starvation.
Beyond this, a months-long drought has added to people’s misery. Hundreds of thousands of other civilians also remain besieged, lacking proper food and medicine, in towns and neighborhoods throughout Syria. This is on top of the millions of refugees, both internal and external.
From the beginning Assad was directing his limitless brutality against both the Syrian Revolution, which threatened him directly, and an idea of Palestine that included popular self-determination—the Arab Spring as embodied in youth, women and workers—that threatened him as well. This was predictable. What is shameful, though, is the silence that has fallen over the struggle of Syria’s Palestinians.
Until IS invaded the camp, little attention was paid. Little was said by many of those who claim to support Palestinian rights. Little was said, and nothing done, by the leaders of the Palestinian political factions, starting with Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.
The tragedy of Yarmouk is bitter, and will have its effect, as illustrated by the words of Ahmad, a resident aid worker: “Yarmouk was so significant, it was the center of political and cultural Palestinian life, and we were closer to Palestine than the camps in Jordan or Lebanon or even the West Bank. We lost all of this after we lost Yarmouk. The regime has tried to take our cause. It is damaging it and the idea of Palestine; but we know what they did to Palestinians in Lebanon and what they are doing to us now.”
Palestine will live on. Already a younger generation, having lived through both the hopes of the Arab Spring and the revelation of what lengths the rulers will go to in order to crush revolution, is beginning to find its voice.