Refugees from Yarmouk: “We Left Everything Behind”

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A Palestinian refugee from the Syrian refugee camp of Yarmouk holds up his passport in front of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) offices in the Cola district of the Lebanese capital, Beirut, on 19 December 2012. (Photo: AFP - Anwar Amro)

By: Afif Diab, Usama al-Qadiri

Published Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The residents of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus received text messages telling them to evacuate. Many heeded the warning, with one resident estimating that 70 percent of the camp has fled in the wake of brutal fighting between the government and its opposition. While many headed to other areas of Damascus, others have arrived at the Lebanese border.

Bekaa – Umm Mahmoud has not had a good night’s sleep since she left her village al-Safsaf, in Palestinian Galilee, six decades ago. She is now 74 and, all those years, she has carried with her the luggage she inherited from her father, and her grandfather before him.

She handed them down to her children and grandchildren, who today wander the earth looking for a place without rockets or planes, nor the poisoned daggers that persist in erasing the camps of Umm Mahmoud, from Nabatiyeh, to Tal al-Zaatar, to Sabra, and now Yarmouk in Damascus.

On the escape bus from the Yarmouk “slaughter,” Umm Mahmoud recounted the story of “her Palestine.” She was forced to leave her camp and it pains her. She poured out her anger on the whole of “Arab nation.”

“What shall I say, my son? We left everything behind and fled,” she said. She left Yarmouk camp three days ago, sleeping on the sidewalk near al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus before joining her neighbors on the bus to the Lebanese borders. She is heading to Ain al-Helweh camp in Saida where her daughter lives.

Umm Mahmoud and her neighbor fled Yarmouk camp on foot under the shelling. “Can you believe they shelled the camps with airplanes? They told us to leave. I only have one daughter and she is here in Ain al-Hilweh. Who can I go to in Damascus?” she explained.

On Tuesday, 18 December 2012, more than one thousand Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus arrived at the Lebanese border crossing point in al-Masnaa. Some came by bus and taxi, others on foot.

They tell tales about the camp and the killing, the rocket shells and the bullets, the war between brothers, and the battles in the streets.

Haj Abu Ali, 69, blamed all those who targeted the camp from inside and outside. “We did not know how we made it out,” he said. “The last thing I thought would happen was to go back to Ain al-Helweh after all those years. My house was hit by a mortar shell, but God saved us.”

Abu Ali, who arrived in Masnaa around noon on Tuesday with seven grandchildren and their three mothers, recounted his tale to a group of gathering Syrian refugees. “The camp might not remain standing, because they told everyone to leave,” he said.

He said the Free Syrian Army (FSA) has the camp completely under control and were joined by members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the PFLP.

“I left the camp two days ago to al-Mazzeh neighborhood, until I arrived yesterday at the camp, then off to al-Jalil camp in Baalbeck,” he said.

So who remains in Yarmouk camp? Taha, a young man, said that 70 percent already left to the center of Damascus, but the majority are heading to Lebanon.

He indicated that the camp was hit by violent shelling from rocket launchers and heavy artillery, adding that the destruction “cannot be described; bodies of fighters and civilians are in the streets.”

He said that “the regular Syrian army is assembled at the entrances of the camp,” explaining that the camp’s popular committees received orders to inform the inhabitants to leave their homes between 5 and 9 am, yesterday and the day before.

Walid, 45, left the camp with his wife and four children. He said that water and electricity were cut four days ago, indicating that most Palestinian inhabitants left or were displaced into safer neighborhoods inside the camp.

Walid, who is active in a Palestinian faction in Yarmouk, explained that the regular Syrian army sent them instructions to stay away from the theater of military operations or leave the camp, in preparation for “expelling the foreign fighters inside.”

At Masnaa, Palestinian refugees faced several administrative complications which delayed their entry into Lebanon. Some had to sleep in the courtyard outside the cafeteria used by General Security, until the general director agreed to allow them in.

They spread out to their relatives’ homes in the camps of al-Jalil in Baalbeck, Burj al-Barajneh in Beirut, and Ain al-Helweh in Saida.

“The diaspora of Palestinian families does not end at Yarmouk camp in Damascus. Forty years ago, these families had been forcibly displaced from Burj al-Barajneh and Tal al-Zaatar,” said Anwar, who had spent his night with his two girls and two boys and his wife outside the cafeteria.

“Today the Palestinians remember the suffering of a new displacement, witnessed by a new generation who never thought there will come a day when they are displaced back into Lebanon,” he said.

Ruba’s tears would not stop as she spoke about the fear felt by civilians. “The situation is worse than what you see on television, fear chases us everywhere,” the 20-year-old woman explained.

She described the final scene in the camp, after she, and everyone else, received text messages on her mobile phone telling her to leave the camp on Monday. Between 5 and 7 am, “the camp seemed like a ghost town. Dust and destruction and the sounds of guns and bullets.”

The influx of Palestinian refugees revealed several complications that those displaced in such terrible security and humanitarian conditions had to endure. Lebanese authorities did not take any exceptional measures to allow the entry of Palestinian families, due to the pressing and escalating situation.

Neither Jihad, nor his wife and three children, who were heading to al-Jalil camp, could have thought that one of the complications would be the cost of entering Lebanon, 25,000 Lebanese Lira, or $17, per person.

He had spent all he had on taxis taking them from place to place in Syria, until they finally arriving at Damascus’ al-Soumariyeh station, where he waited for a relative from Saida to come to Masnaa with the money for his and his wife’s visas.

Umm Taleb, who is in her seventies, did not fare better. She had been waiting to complete the formalities of her entry into Lebanon along with her children and head to Ain al-Helweh. At the steps of the General Security building, she sat crying.

“God inscribed that we get displaced and keep the keys to our homes as a reminder of sour times. May He calm the souls and return everyone to their homes,” she said.

But Ahmad al-Ali, his wife, and four children have to return to Syria. They did not have an exit permit from the immigrations and passport control department in al-Sabaa Bahrat square.

Ahmad explained that when he went there, it was packed. “Which meant that even if I got a turn, it’s up to luck whether I get the permit or not. But I did not expect the Lebanese General Security to turn us back in such exceptional circumstances.”

Another problem faced refugees with Palestinian passports issued by the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Mohsen says he received an exit permit last week, but “[general] security turned us back because we have PNA passports. But I have a permit to leave Syria. I don’t know what reason they have.”

While a number of refugees are staying with relatives in Lebanon, others filled the squares of towns such as Majdal Anjar, Bar Elias, Taalabaya, and Saadnayel. They are hoping to find some kind of shelter after it became impossible to find a house or apartment in these towns.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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