Migrant Lives

Palestinians Starving To Death In Syrian Refugee Camp

Syria Deeply had a rare opportunity to hear from Palestinians facing violence and starvation in the Yarmouk refugee camp in southwestern Syria.

Thousands of Yarmouk refugees waiting for food distribution, in January 2014
Thousands of Yarmouk refugees waiting for food distribution, in January 2014
Omar Abdullah

Getting caught in the crossfire has become a permanent situation in Syria. Nobody knows that better than Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp, who have been innocent victims caught between the regime forces and rebel groups fighting for control of southwestern Syria.

Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in Syria, first came under attack in December 2012 when forces loyal to the goverment of Bashar al-Assad began shelling the camp, dropping barrel bombs and arresting prominent activists and outspoken critics. It is now going on two-and-a-half years that a government-imposed siege has seriously limited the residents’ access to food, medicine and other basic necessities.

Although the United Nations recently reclassified Yarmouk as no longer under siege, residents tell Syria Deeply that conditions on the ground have not improved. Nidal, 21, maintains that the camp is still besieged. “I never imagined living under a siege,” he told Syria Deeply. “We still suffer from a lack of everything â€" we have no food, no water and no medicine.”

In April, ISIS launched an offensive in Yarmouk and captured up to an estimated 90 percent of the camp. After fighting against Palestinian armed factions, opposing rebel groups and Assad loyalists, ISIS reportedly pulled most of its fighters from the camp. For now, Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, remains the main group in the camp.

Life in Yarmouk is “like a very slow death,” Nidal says. “We are always waiting for death from hunger, barrel bombs or being beheaded. Death’s coming and we cannot stop it. If we don’t get food, we’ll all die of hunger.”

Hungry and desperate, many residents have already resorted to eating anything they could find, including grass and stray animals. Worse still, the U.N. has not been able to deliver humanitarian aid to Yarmouk since ISIS’s attacks in April, the U.N. agency for Palestine refugees’ (UNRWA), Chris Gunness told Syria Deeply last month.

"What we’re finding is that around one-third of the children we see have severe malnutrition, and about half of the children are malnourished in one form or another," Gunness said. "It is beyond unimaginable, which is why we say that the time for humanitarian action alone has long since passed. We need concerted political action to deal with the consequences of what is a profound political crisis."

Nidal says that even going to retrieve grass to eat is dangerous. “If we get too close to the edges of the camp to get some grass, we can be shot by the regime’s snipers,” he explained. “And when any faction tries to enter the camp, explosive barrels and bombs are rained down on us.”

Since December 2012, the camp’s population has shrunk from nearly 200,000 people to fewer than 18,000, with many searching for ways to flee. But Umm Ahmad, Nidal’s 28-year-old sister, says that they have nowhere else to go. “It’s our destiny as Palestinians to constantly suffer death and displacement,” she told Syria Deeply. “I don’t understand why death follows us everywhere we go. Everyone wants to get rid of us.”

Umm Ahmad used to support the Syrian government, but she says that Assad has “completely besieged” Yarmouk. “Even picking a few blades of grass isn’t allowed,” she explained. “The snipers shoot anyone who gets close.”

Although ISIS withdrew many of its fighters, the group has maintained a heavy presence in the surrounding areas. “If we try to run away from the camp, ISIS will behead us for ‘running away from jihad,’ as they say.”

One of ISIS’s main rivals inside the camp is Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis, a militia with ties to the Palestinian political group Hamas. As Palestinian fighters attempt to evict groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra from the camp, Palestinian leaders in the camp have been targeted in attacks.

Local Hamas leader Mustafa al-Sharaan was killed when ISIS fighters shot him in the head earlier this month as he left a local mosque, according to an Arabic-language report at Shasha News. In early July, as fighting intensified, ISIS defaced and destroyed images of Palestinian political leaders, including the late Yasser Arafat, in neighborhoods across the camp.

Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nusra told Arabic-language media outlets that it had “made progress” in the Yarmouk camp and expanded its presence as a result of intense fighting with pro-government forces recently.

Explaining that few ISIS fighters remain inside the camp, Umm Ahmad says the group controls several of the camp’s southern exits and main throughways. “But ISIS isn’t the only group that prevents people from leaving the camp,” she said.

Two armed Palestinian groups, Fatah al-Intifada and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine â€" General Command (PFLP-GC), are both supported by the Assad government. “They are worse than ISIS. We can’t even get close to the areas under their control,” Umm Ahmad remarked. “We would be killed right away.”

Hazim, 20, left his studies to join an armed Islamist group fighting against the Syrian government. He was motivated to fight by the suffering he saw around him and the restrictions on access to humanitarian aid, which he says rarely entered the camp and wasn’t enough to provide for the besieged residents even before the U.N. and other groups lost access to the camp in late March.

“All we get in this camp is death, humiliation and hunger,” he told Syria Deeply. “What has Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas done for us? Nothing. Why doesn’t he negotiate with his friend, Assad, to find a solution for us? Aren’t we Palestinians also? Why are we neglected and ignored by everyone?”

Hazim says that prisoners from Yarmouk have died “from excessive torture” in Syrian prisons, while those who remain in the camp suffer from illnesses and a lack of necessities. “Cholera and malaria … What century are we in? I don’t know how things will go, but I am sure that we won’t leave Yarmouk alive.”

Like Syrian communities across the country, those in Palestinian refugee camps have all been hit hard by the ongoing bloodshed. Earlier this month, the Action Group for Palestinians of Syria estimated that nearly 3,000 Palestinians have been killed during the civil war. The Yarmouk-based group says another 931 are in Syrian prisons and at least 277 have been abducted.

This camp used to be full of life, but now it’s only death,” Hazim commented. “My mother always says that death never gets bored with Palestinians â€" and I believe she’s right.”

Omar, a 42-year-old physician at the local Halawah hospital, says food and medicine are needed urgently. “The camp’s residents â€" both the kids and the adults â€" look like ghosts,” he said. “When you look at their faces and bodies you see death.”

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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