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

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.”


Palestinians, Arabs ‘must learn lessons of Naksa’

A Palestinian man facing Israeli soldiers waves a national flag during a protest against Israel's plan to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, near the town of Tulkarm on June 5, 2020. (AFP)
Updated 06 June 2020

Palestinians, Arabs ‘must learn lessons of Naksa’

  • Jordanian MP Kais Zayadin said that the biggest mistake Arab countries made was to trust that the occupying state would make peace and reach a lasting solution to the Palestinian cause

AMMAN: Leading Palestinian and Arab figures have used the 53rd anniversary of Naksa — the displacement and occupation of Arab territories that followed Israel’s victory in the 1967 war against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan — to highlight political mistakes made during and after the conflict.

Adnan Abu-Odeh, political adviser to Jordan's King Hussein and King Abdullah II, told Arab News that Arab countries and the Palestinian leadership had failed to understand the goals of Zionism.

“Governments that participated in the war were naive, expecting a repeat of the 1956 Sinai invasion when the US ordered an Israeli withdrawal. This was followed by the mistaken belief that we could liberate the land using guerrilla warfare," he said.

Anees Sweidan, director-general of foreign relations in the PLO, told Arab News that the Palestinian cause is undergoing a complicated phase where political opportunities are limited.

“The US bias towards Israel and absence of unity has put the Palestinian movement in a difficult situation. It is harder to generate external support and the financial crunch is causing much suffering despite the fact that we have made important accomplishments in the UN and Europe.”

Abdalqader Husseini, chairperson of the Faisal Husseini Foundation, said that the opportunities the anniversary offers should not be ignored.

“We need to realize that this is an illegal occupation that continues to dig deeper and escalate every day to the degree that the international community has lost interest and world conscience has become numb to Israeli practices. We in Jerusalem have not normalized with the occupiers and we have not accepted the new situation as an inescapable reality that we must accept.”

Jordanian MP Kais Zayadin said that the biggest mistake Arab countries made was to trust that the occupying state would make peace and reach a lasting solution to the Palestinian cause.

“We went to Madrid with hope, the Palestinian leadership went to Oslo with optimism that they could reach a phased solution that would lead to statehood. As we remember this Naksa, we must revisit the path that has allowed the occupying entity to steal our land and cause havoc to our people without any deterrence from the international community," he said.

They (Palestinian youth) personify the meaning of steadfastness for dignity, and they have the will to protect our heritage, our identity, and our holy places.”

Mahdi Abdulhadi, head of PASSIA thinktank

Nibal Thawabteh, director of the Bir Zeit University’s Media Development Center, said the biggest mistake since 1967 was focusing on politics and avoiding community development.

"We don’t have a strong sense of citizenship, some have become accustomed to religious Islam. We need to work more on the citizenship.”

Ahmad Awad, director of the Amman-based Phenix Center for Economic and Informatics Studies, said there is a lack of acknowledgment of the reasons behind the Arab loss.

“Political, economic and cultural factors caused our loss, and we feel that most Arab countries have not learned this lesson. Instead of learning, we are going backwards, failing to defend their existential rights, shifting to isolationism as well as cultural and economic regression in our region."

Instead of looking backward, some Palestinians wanted to look forward.

Mahdi Abdulhadi, head of the PASSIA thinktank in Jerusalem, said that Palestinian youth who never felt the shock of the 1967 defeat but have seen the exposure of Arab regimes in the face of the "deal of the century" will prevail.

“They personify the meaning of steadfastness for dignity, and they have the will to protect our heritage, our identity, and our holy places.”

Lily Habash, a Exeter University political science graduate, told Arab News that things look different on the ground.

“The world is changing and Israel uses geopolitical and regional changes to its advantage,” she said.

Dangers today encourage despair but Palestinians will be steadfast in the long term, she added.

“Some say we need a savior to get us out of this dilemma but I believe we need to trust in ourselves and work on all fronts.”