Shadows of Yarmouk

People wait in line to receive humanitarian aid in Yarmouk refugee camp, in southern Damascus, Syria, on February 2, 2014. (Rami al Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

People wait in line to receive humanitarian aid in Yarmouk refugee camp, in southern Damascus, Syria, on February 2, 2014. (Rami al Sayid/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

It is raining mortars in Damascus. Not even neighborhoods in government-controlled areas have escaped the onslaught. But in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk, just outside central Damascus, this has been the case for a long time. It began on August 2, 2012, when two fatal blasts hit Jaouna Street, killing at least 20 people. The explosions were reportedly caused by artillery shells fired by the government forces of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Life in the camp, where I had lived all my life, has been desperate ever since.

I remained in Yarmouk until June 2013 and witnessed society collapsing around me. I was losing someone dear to me nearly every day. Those left were but shadows of their former selves. For days at a time we saw no bread. We would only eat what had been stored in our homes: lentils, beans, some rice, pasta and cracked wheat. Public transportation was nonexistent; the last taxi was seen more than a year before. To get around, you had no choice but to walk, no matter how far. To bring in food from outside the camp—and only from other opposition-held areas—you needed to walk for at least four hours, and most of the time even then you wouldn’t find anything to eat.

Yarmouk camp was once home to the largest Palestinian refugee community in Syria, numbering 150,000 registered refugees before the conflict began, the majority have now fled the camp, leaving behind an estimated 20,000.

It is a little known fact that there were no protests in the camp for much of the first year of the uprising. People used to protest in the surrounding areas of Midan, Tadamon, Yalda, and Hajar Al-Aswad. Soon, thousands of internally displaced people were pouring into Yarmouk, and the community supported the newcomers without any help from the outside. Then the government forces started shelling the camp. Some local residents took sides, supporting the government while others backed the opposition.

After the opposition took control of the camp in December 2012, it was partially besieged by government forces and their Palestinian supporters. Since then it has been blockaded by Assad’s army.

Families were torn apart by the siege. A friend of mine fled the camp with her two sons, aged 15 and 11, fearing she may lose them to the rockets fired into the camp. They escaped to Qudsaya, a town to the west of Damascus. When the camp closed, her husband was trapped inside, and after a while Qudsaya itself was besieged. They have not seen each other for nearly 300 days, although the journey that separates them is only a short 45-minute drive.

It was by pure chance that I got out before the camp was completely closed off. The photograph that was shown all over the world of the camp’s residents waiting for food parcels was the route I walked on my way out. I do not know if I will go back there ever again. But it will never be the same, at least for me, because the people who made the place what it was are no longer there.

All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.