Yarmouk surviving off stray animals: resident

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Syrian Red Crescent workers assist a man to be evacuated from the besieged Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, south of the Syrian capital Damascus on January 19, 2014. (Photo: AFP / STR)

Published Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Besieged since June, nearly 20,000 people in Damascus' Yarmouk Palestinian camp are so desperate for food that many eat stray animals, according to a resident reached via the Internet.

"Many here have slaughtered and eaten cats and dogs, and even a donkey," said Yarmouk resident Ali, who was a university student when Syria's revolt erupted in 2011.

"One man who killed a dog couldn't find any meat to eat on its body, because even the dogs are starving," he told AFP via Skype.

"What was unimaginable a few months ago is normal now."

Once a refugee camp, Yarmouk evolved generations ago into a bustling commercial and residential district, where both Syrians and Palestinians resided.

In 2011, it was home to some 150,000 Palestinians registered in Syria after waves of displacement forced their ancestors to seek shelter following Israel's establishment.

When war spread to areas of Damascus in the summer of 2012, thousands of people from other parts of the capital fled to Yarmouk, swelling its population further.

But Yarmouk soon became a war zone too, as Syrians taking up arms against the government moved into the camp.

Some Palestinians joined the rebels, others backed pro-regime groups, mainly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

In June, the army imposed a total blockade on Yarmouk, which covers an area of just over two square kilometers (less than a square mile).

Most residents had fled by then, but, according to the United Nations, 18,000 civilians remain.

Seven months later, food and medical supplies have all but run out, with prices skyrocketing to up to $100 for a kilogram of rice, residents say.

"The situation is so desperate that women are selling their bodies to men who stocked up food before the siege was imposed, for just a cup of rice or bulgur," said Ali.

"Imagine the feeling of a father unable to feed his children, as they wail from hunger," he added.

Tasked with meeting the Palestinian refugees' needs, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) has struggled to secure access to the camp.

Only two convoys have made it into Yarmouk in recent months, bringing in a scant 138 parcels of food aid.

According to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, "the aid allowed in... so far is shockingly inadequate to meet the dire needs of these (18,000) civilians."

The needs include "powder milk for babies, polio vaccines for infants and basic foodstuffs," said Gunness.

On January 18, the government said it would facilitate aid access.

"However, the agency is extremely disappointed that... the assurances given by the authorities have not been backed by action on the ground to facilitate the regular, rapid entry into Yarmouk of the substantial quantities of relief required to make a difference to thousands of civilians," Gunness told AFP.

While government and opposition representatives are meeting in Geneva for peace talks and to negotiate aid access for Homs in central Syria, it appears Yarmouk's fate is not being addressed.

PFLP-GC spokesman Anwar Raja blamed the rebels for the camp's plight.

"There was an agreement for the Palestinian armed men inside the camp to pressure non-Palestinian armed men to leave," Raja said, referring to rebels.

"We hope the people will push on the Palestinian armed groups that had pledged to pressure the other armed groups, including al-Nusra (Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate)... to create a better atmosphere to ensure aid gets in."

(AFP, Al-Akhbar)

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