Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmuk yearn for outside help

A man stands in a street near destroyed buildings in the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk southern Damascus on November 1, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 05 November 2018

Palestinians in Syria’s Yarmuk yearn for outside help

  • Former residents of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk are desperately counting on assistance from abroad to help raise the once-bustling neighborhood back out of the rubble
  • “We’ve lived through a terrifying nightmare,” said 46-year-old Amina, one of the camp’s very few remaining residents

YARMUK: After years of fighting, crippling siege and bombardment, what was once the Palestinian diaspora’s largest urban settlement in southern Damascus has been reduced to a sea of debris.
Former residents of the Palestinian camp of Yarmuk are desperately counting on assistance from abroad to help raise the once-bustling neighborhood back out of the rubble.
“We’ve lived through a terrifying nightmare,” said 46-year-old Amina, one of the camp’s very few remaining residents.
It “didn’t kill us, but now we need someone to rebuild the houses so our people and neighbors can return,” she said, wearing a long black robe and white headscarf.
In May this year, Syrian government and allied forces retook the neighborhood, which had for years been the Daesh militant group’s only bastion in the capital.
Five months on, it is a ghost town where bulldozers have carved wide passages through a sprawling jumble of concrete debris and mangled steel rods.
Foreign “countries need to help us because we’re like a cripple who needs a crutch to walk again,” Amina said.
Founded in 1957 with tents for Palestinians forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel, Yarmuk grew into a sprawling neighborhood of permanent structures that became home to 160,000 Palestinians, as well as Syrians.
In 2012, around 140,000 residents fled clashes, leaving the rest to face severe food shortages under government siege.
And three years later, Daesh militants entered the area, bringing further suffering to remaining residents.
Despite all this, dozens of families including Amina’s remained inside the camp, and others have since trickled back in.
A few children snake between the charred carcasses of buses and cars lining a street on their way to a school outside the camp.
In Amina’s street, one of the only roads in Yarmuk still inhabited, a recently returned neighbor has cobbled together a playground.
Abu Bilal has brought together swings, a small merry-go-round and a slide in an alley adorned with portraits of President Bashar Assad and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
“I created this space so the neighborhood’s children could be happy,” said the 54-year-old, who now works sweeping streets recently cleared of rubble.
“What I do is not enough for people to come back, but I hope donor countries” will help, he said.
In September, bulldozers started to clear Yarmuk’s main roads of rubble, with funding from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and are expected to take another two months to finish clearing side streets.
“Rebuilding requires (foreign) countries and huge capital,” said Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled, a member of a committee overseeing the rubble clearing.
But Palestinian and UN officials say the camp’s future is still unclear, as Damascus has not yet given a green light for any re-building or officially allowed residents to return.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, says its 23 premises in the camp including 16 schools are damaged, but it will not fix any if the government does not officially allow residents to return.
“What is the future of the camp? Will the government allow people to go back or not?” UNRWA’s head in Syria, Mohammed Abdi Adar, said.
“Before we can do anything, we must get a clear answer,” he told AFP.
Even then finding funding would be tough, said the official, whose agency has been facing a funding crisis since the United States cut vital support.
“Many donors are saying they will not support the reconstruction in Syria,” Abdi Adar said, though he stressed the aim for UNRWA was simply to re-establish services.
Syria’s war has killed more than 360,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged large parts of the country since it started in 2011.
Regime ally Moscow has called for assistance in rebuilding Syria so millions of refugees can return.
In July, the government tasked the ministry of works to draw up new plans for Yarmuk, as well as other Damascus suburbs retaken from rebels and militants, sparking fears that the camp could fall under a controversial new law for redevelopment.
Under this law, if their land is part of a new development, owners inevitably lose their property but can apply for compensation if they can prove ownership.
Individual Palestinians and Syrians own property in 80 percent of the Yarmuk camp, while the remainder is owned by the Syrian state and managed by its authority for Palestinian affairs.
For now, Palestinian officials say the government has assured them that Yarmuk is under no threat. They are pushing for a 2004 plan to be followed for reconstruction.


Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

Updated 8 min 5 sec ago

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.