Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011. (AFP)
Updated 12 October 2018
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Bulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria’s Yarmuk

  • Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting
  • With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, there is still much work to be done

YARMUK, Syria: Not far from where he used to live, Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled watched as bulldozers rumbled back and forth scooping up smashed concrete from the devastated streets of Syria’s Yarmuk.
Once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, the camp in the Damascus suburbs has been emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria’s seven-year war.
But five months after regime forces expelled the last militants in the area, soldiers now stand guard at the camp’s entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.
On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.
“When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw,” said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.
“But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up,” Khaled said.
Off Yarmuk’s main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.
Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.
“We have shifted 50,000 cubic meters of rubble and reopened all the main roads,” Khaled said.
But “it will be a while before families can come back,” he added.
As Khaled surveyed the neighborhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.
Tens of thousands have fled Yarmuk since Syria’s conflict started in 2011 and government forces imposed a crippling siege on the then rebel-held camp a year later.
Since the latest round of fighting to expel the Daesh group ended in May, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.
Walking through the camp, Khaled pointed out his former home and the office where he used to work. The first had been damaged in fighting, while the second was completely destroyed.
With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble in the war, according to an initial estimate, Khaled said there is still much work to be done.
And although he estimates 40 percent of the buildings could be lived in, another 40 percent need major work before their residents can return.
When he visited the camp in May, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described it as lying “in ruins.”
Basic services such as water and electricity were so severely damaged, he said, that it was hard to imagine people returning any time soon.
Funded by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Syrian government, the clearing operation has been ongoing for 20 days and is expected to take another month to complete.
But there are no clear plans yet for the reconstruction of the neighborhood or its ravaged infrastructure.
PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi said he hoped reconstruction would start “as soon as possible so that our people can return to the camp.”
“But the rebuilding is still awaiting a government decision,” he said.
Back in Yarmuk, Ibrahim Am Ali walked between the bulldozers, oblivious to the dust permeating his clothes.
“I was desperate when I saw how destroyed the building was where my brothers and I had gathered over the past years,” said the 74-year-old, also part of the team overseeing the clean-up work.
Now “we have started rebuilding the camp,” the Syrian-Palestinian said, wearing a light purple shirt.
“Perhaps I will never see it completely rebuilt, but it’s enough for me to have taken part in the very beginning.”


Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

Updated 21 min 29 sec ago
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Thousands flee bombs and hunger in eastern Syria

  • UN Spokesperson says at least 16,500 people have been forced to flee their homes
  • Almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children

AL-HOL, Syria: Faraj was born in the pouring rain on a nondescript stretch of desert road in eastern Syria as his family fled escalating fighting over the Daesh group’s last bastion.
His family was part of a group of around 200 civilians who managed to escape from a pocket of territory in Deir Ezzor province that is still held by the jihadists.
“I had to resist hunger, cold and rain,” the newborn’s mother Kamela Fadel tells AFP in a camp for displaced people in the northeastern region of Al-Hol.
The young woman, her husband and their four children now sleep under white tents, with hundreds of other people who fled eastern flashpoints in past weeks.
They are huddled on straw mats laid out directly on the gravely earth, wrapped in blankets and hugging bags packed with their meagre belongings.
A nurse helps an elderly lady to the camp clinic as children play at scaling piles of foam mattresses and families sit cross-legged, eating from tin cans.
It is still cold in the vast tent but at least they are sheltered from the rain.
They walked for several days in the winter weather before being met last week by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling IS in Deir Ezzor.
“It was hunger that prompted us to leave, there was nothing left to eat,” says Kamela’s husband, still sporting the thick beard the jihadists impose on all adult men.
He and his family were living in Al-Shaafa, one of the last villages, together with Sousa and Hajjin, that are still under the control of IS.
The SDF, with the support of air strikes by the US-led coalition against IS, launched a major operation against the last rump of the jihadists’ moribund “caliphate” in September this year.
The jihadists hunkering down in their Euphrates Valley heartland have offered stiff resistance, thwarting coalition hopes of a quick victory.
Warplanes have been raining bombs on IS targets in and around Hajjin, causing significant civilian loss of life in the process, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory says almost 320 civilians have been killed, including 113 children.
“There is destruction everywhere because of the fighting and the bombardment. We were scared for the children,” says Faraj’s father.
Local camp official Mohamed Ibrahim told AFP around 1,700 civilians had arrived in Al-Hol in recent days.
The intensity of the bombardment and the remoteness of the area make it is difficult to estimate the number of civilians who remain, voluntarily or not, in the IS pocket.
“In Syria, displacement leads to food insecurity as people leave their belongings behind,” said Marwa Awad, a spokeswoman for the UN’s World Food Programme in Damascus.
“This is why it’s vital to maintain a lifeline of food assistance for vulnerable families such as those escaping violence in Deir Ezzor,” she said.
Awad said at least 16,500 people had been forced to flee their homes in Hajjin and surrounding areas since violence in the area intensified in July this year.
SDF fighters too suffered heavy losses in their assault on Hajjin, where a group of die-hard jihadists with little to lose are making a bloody last stand.
“There are land mines everywhere on the roads,” says Abu Omar, one of the displaced in Al-Hol.
Fearing retribution against relatives who have stayed behind in IS-controlled territory, he refused to give his full name.
“The village and our homes have been destroyed by the bombardment,” says Abu Omar, a man in his thirties.
“There are still high-ranking members of IS and foreigners there, but most are on the Hajjin frontline,” he says. “They won’t give up easily, they are fighting to the death.”
The US-led coalition puts the number of jihadist fighters holding out in that area at around 2,000.
“The day we managed to flee, the fog was thick and gave us cover. Had they seen us, they would have wiped us out,” says Ziba Al-Ahmed, who escaped the town of Sousa.
“The bombardment was so scary and our bellies were crying,” says the mother of four.
Their farming machinery was too precious to leave in Sousa and her husband stayed behind with one of their daughters.
“We’re worried about them, we don’t know what’s going to happen to them.”