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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — both the kids and the adults — look like ghosts," he said. "When you look at their faces and bodies you see death."

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Pro-life and Pro-abortion Rights Protests in Washington

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Håfa adai!*

Welcome to Thursday, where new Omicron findings arrive from South Africa, abortion rights are at risk at the U.S. Supreme Court and Tyrannosaurus rex has got some new competition. From Germany, we share the story of a landmark pharmacy turned sex toy museum.

[*Chamorro - Guam]

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🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• COVID update: South Africa reports a higher rate of reinfections from the Omicron variant than has been registered with the Beta and Delta variants, though researchers await further findings on the effects of the new strain. Meanwhile, the UK approves the use of a monoclonal therapy, known as sotrovimab, to treat those at high risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.The approval comes as the British pharmaceutical company, GSK, separately announced the treatment has shown to “retain activity” against the Omicron variant. Down under, New Zealand’s reopening, slated for tomorrow is being criticized as posing risks to its under-vaccinated indigenous Maori.

• Supreme Court poised to gut abortion rights: The U.S. Supreme Court signaled a willingness to accept a Republican-backed Mississippi law that would bar abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, even in cases of rape or incest. A ruling, expected in June, may see millions of women lose abortion access, 50 years after it was recognized as a constitutional right in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

• Macri charged in Argentine spying case: Argentina’s former president Mauricio Macri has been charged with ordering the secret services to spy on the family members of 44 sailors who died in a navy submarine sinking in 2017. The charge carries a sentence of three to ten years in prison. Macri, now an opposition leader, says the charges are politically motivated.

• WTA suspends China tournaments over Peng Shuai: The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) announced the immediate suspension of all tournaments in China due to concerns about the well-being of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, and the safety of other players. Peng disappeared from public view after accusing a top Chinese official of sexual assault.

• Michigan school shooting suspect to be charged as an adult: The 15-year-old student accused of killing four of his classmates and wounding seven other people in a Michigan High School will face charges of terrorism and first-degree murder. Authorities say the suspect had described wanting to attack the school in cellphone videos and a journal.

• Turkey replaces finance minister amid economic turmoil: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan appointed a strong supporter of his low-interest rate drive, Nureddin Nebati, as Turkey’s new finance minister.

• A battle axe for a tail: Chilean researchers announced the discovery of a newly identified dinosaur species with a completely unique feature from any other creatures that lived at that time: a flat, weaponized tail resembling a battle axe.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

South Korean daily Joong-ang Ilbo reports on the discovery of five Omicron cases in South Korea. The Asian nation has broken its daily record for overall coronavirus infections for a second day in a row with more than 5,200 new cases. The variant cases were linked to arrivals from Nigeria and prompted the government to tighten border controls.


#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

¥10,000

In the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, a reward of 10,000 yuan ($1,570) will be given to anyone who volunteers to take a COVID-19 test and get a positive result, local authorities announced on Thursday on the social network app WeChat.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Why an iconic pharmacy is turning into a sex toy museum

The "New Pharmacy" was famous throughout the St. Pauli district of Hamburg for its history and its long-serving owner. Now the owner’s daughter is transforming it into a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys, linking it with the past "curing" purpose of the shop, reports Eva Eusterhus in German daily Die Welt.

💊 The story begins in autumn 2018, when 83-year-old Regis Genger stood at the counter of her pharmacy and realized that the time had come for her to retire. At least that is the first thing her daughter Anna Genger tells us when we meet, describing the turning point that has also shaped her life and that of her business partner Bianca Müllner. The two women want to create something new here, something that reflects the pharmacy's history and Hamburg's eclectic St. Pauli quarter (it houses both a red light district and the iconic Reeperbahn entertainment area) as well as their own interests.

🚨 Over the last few months, the pharmacy has been transformed into L'Apotheque, a venture that brings together art and business in St. Pauli's red light district. The back rooms will be used for art exhibitions, while the old pharmacy space will house a museum dedicated to the history of sex toys. Genger and Müllner want to show that desire has always existed and that people have always found inventive ways of maximizing pleasure, even in times when self-gratification was seen as unnatural and immoral, as a cause of deformities.

🏩 Genger and Müllner want the museum to show how the history of desire has changed over time. The art exhibitions, which will also center on the themes of physicality and sexuality, are intended to complement the exhibits. They are planning to put on window displays to give passers-by a taste of what is to come, for example, British artist Bronwen Parker-Rhodes's film Lovers, which offers a portrait of sex workers during lockdown.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

I would never point a gun at anyone and pull a trigger at them. Never.

— U.S. actor Alec Baldwin spoke to ABC News, his first interview since the accident that killed cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the movie Rust last October. The actor said that although he was holding the gun he didn’t pull the trigger, adding that the bullet “wasn't even supposed to be on the property.”

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