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Yarmouk activist describes "atrocious" state of war-torn camp in Syria

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  • Cort Greene
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      DIARIES: LIVE FROM PALESTINE <http://electronicintifada.net/diaries>
      Yarmouk activist describes "atrocious" state of war-torn camp in Syria
      Moe Ali Nayel <http://electronicintifada.net/people/moe-ali-nayel>
      The Electronic Intifada<http://electronicintifada.net/people/electronic-intifada>

      Beirut <http://electronicintifada.net/location/beirut>
      26 February 2013

      Residents of Yarmouk camp trickle back after intense fighting between
      Syrian rebels and the army, December 2012.
      (Carole Alfarah <http://electronicintifada.net/people/carole-alfarah> /
      Polaris/Newscom <http://electronicintifada.net/people/polarisnewscom>)

      Only twenty months ago 38-year-old Palestinian refugee Moutawali Abu Nasser
      gave up his teaching job and put his theater work on hold in order to
      deploy his intellectual skills to keep Damascus�
      Yarmouk<http://electronicintifada.net/tags/yarmouk> camp
      neutral but sympathetic to the winds of change that started blowing in
      Yet eight kilometers away from the center of
      Yarmouk is sinking deeper and deeper into the conflict.

      In the past, the return to his first home, Palestine, was Abu Nasser�s
      preoccupation. As a schoolteacher and a scriptwriter he used his classroom
      and theater to educate new generations on the history of Palestine, the
      occupation and advocate the right of

      His second home, Yarmouk, took several blows from the wave of change and
      conflict that has swept Syria since 2011. Abu Nasser became involved in
      local organizing and support for the Syrian people: through media, relief
      work and community empowerment.

      Since Israel�s occupation of Palestine in 1948, many intellectuals,
      businessmen and craftspeople forced out of their country fled to Syria and
      established themselves in Yarmouk. The camp was established in 1957 and is
      today a large urban quarter housing 400,000 residents and the largest
      population center for Palestinian refugees in Syria.

      Palestinians shaped the camp into a vibrant hub for commerce, arts,
      business and politics. The camp was known as a safe haven for political
      fugitives and for the organization of underground political movements who
      had a tense relationship with the Syrian regime. Another specific feature
      of Yarmouk was the influence of its Palestinian cultural scene that
      attracted many Syrians into the camp. Yarmouk did not merely remain as a
      camp or a shanty town but it flourished to become a small city with a
      vibrant Palestinian scene.

      Today, almost two years after Syrians took to the streets in protest
      against the regime, the camp is caught up in a war between Free Syrian Army
      (FSA) rebel forces and the Syrian government security forces. Of the
      135,000 Palestinians who lived inside the camp, only 40,000 now remain,
      says Abu Nasser.

      In an interview with The Electronic Intifada in Beirut, Abu Nasser explains
      how the camp has changed in the last two years.

      *The Electronic Intifada:* What did you do before the wave of peaceful
      protests in Syria?

      *Moutawali Abu Nasser:* I am married with two kids; I used to teach
      philosophy at a high school in Yarmouk. I also worked at a local theater
      directing plays and writing scripts. In addition I played a role in the
      camp�s social committees, volunteering some of my time to editing and
      writing for a local journal that was published and distributed in
      Palestinian camps within Syria.

      That was my life until the protests began. In the past the Syrian regime
      banned us Palestinians from any form of organization. We were not allowed
      to have our own teachers and artists� syndicates or a labor union. In the
      camp many of us resented the [ruling] Baath party for forcing a freeze on
      our political activity. This accumulated bitterness towards the only
      political party I was close to: the
      PFLP<http://electronicintifada.net/tags/pflp> [Popular
      Front for the Liberation of Palestine] disappointed me. I felt they were
      not doing anything to challenge the regime.

      At the moment some people say you are Palestinian and Syria is none of your
      business; to me this is a misleading equation. The difference between us
      and the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is the fact that in Syria,
      Palestinians had a role in society, [and] also Syrians treated us as fellow
      citizens, unlike Palestinian refugees in
      Lebanon<http://electronicintifada.net/tags/lebanon> who
      are marginalized and kept outside the Lebanese system. We are subject to
      the same treatment by the regime as our Syrian compatriots. To me this
      meant solidarity as the bare minimum.

      *EI:* Can you explain the relations and sentiments of Yarmouk camp towards
      the Syrian regime and towards the Syrian uprising?

      *MAN:* Daraa, [the southern city near the Jordanian border] where the
      revolution officially started, was under military siege and it was
      Palestinians from Daraa camp who broke the siege by smuggling food and gas
      to the stranded residents of Daraa.

      As a result, seven of them were captured and killed on the spot.
      Palestinians in Yarmouk were outraged at this news; they called it a
      massacre. Palestinian camps in Syria were with the revolution before the
      revolution. We never forgot [the 1976 massacre in] Tel al-Zaatar [refugee
      camp, when a Syrian invasion of Lebanon allowed right-wing militias to kill
      thousands of Palestinians]. We never forgot the role of [former Syrian
      President] Hafez al-Assad in Lebanon against the Palestinian resistance and
      the camps.

      However, Yarmouk remained neutral the first year of the Syrian revolution.
      I remember at the end of July 2011, we, the local committees of the camp,
      were organizing a protest but we agreed it should be outside the camp.
      Later we found out that many young people from the camp had been secretly
      going to surrounding areas to protest in solidarity with their Syrian

      There was public awareness and consensus that the camp should be left out
      and that was not easy to convey to the angry youth who had lost some of
      their Syrian friends in protests outside the camp. Then, displaced Syrian
      families started arriving to take shelter in the camp and that kept us all
      busy coordinating relief campaigns for the fleeing families.

      *EI:* What did the Yarmouk camp offer by not joining the protests and
      staying neutral?

      *MAN:* Palestinians, politicized since the day they are born, had
      experience in organization � in medical, humanitarian relief organization.
      We also offered our experience in media support, creating the Tanseqyat
      al-Yarmouk [Local Coordination Committees].

      This media coordination was meant to serve as an outlet to surrounding
      areas that were protesting. Since we were trying to keep the camp away from
      direct involvement we only focused on media coverage and made sure that the
      reports we issued were fact-checked and accurate. Later, the task of
      coordination changed when bombs fell on the camp. After we got bombed the
      coordination had to expand its role from media only to include medical aid,
      housing and food distribution units in the camp. The camp�s role was

      *EI:* Can you talk about the influence of the
      PFLP-GC<http://electronicintifada.net/tags/pflp-gc> and
      other regime-supported Palestinian factions in Yarmouk? [The Popular Front
      for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command is an armed Palestinian
      faction close to to the Syrian government, separate from the PFLP.]

      *MAN:* The straw that broke the regime and its allies in the camp was the
      [5 June 2011]Naksa commemoration
      followed the 15 May 2011 Nakba Day
      Palestinian refugees attempted to walk home over the Lebanese border, with
      10 being shot dead by Israeli soliders].

      On Naksa Day <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/nakba-day>, we went to the
      borders but the regime profited politically from that day. We were wary
      about the people who were organizing the trip to the border. It was obvious
      these people were organizing to take young men to the border in a manner
      that did not feel spontaneous [as] at the Nakba commemoration.

      This was a move the regime was going to invest in and send people to die on
      the border. We urged people in the camp not to go. However when the news
      came that people were being killed we could not stop people going to check
      on those at the border.

      Things got tense in the camp when people returned and wanted to bury their
      martyrs:people clashed with the
      who responded by shooting at the funeral, killing more. Subsequently,
      people took to the streets wanting to cleanse Yarmouk. This was when the
      camp started its own �spring�: Palestinians against corrupt, opportunistic

      This was an incident that drove the camp away from neutrality. Then came
      indiscriminate shelling from MiGs [Russian made fighter jets] before Free
      Syrian Army fighters entered the camp. The Free Syrian Army officially
      entered the camp on 15 December 2012.

      The PLFP-GC joined the regime and attacked FSA locations around Yarmouk. At
      first the PFLP-GC had 2,000 paid Palestinian fighters from the camp but now
      there are only [approximately] 80 of them left.

      The FSA decided to enter the camp to fight the PFLP-GC, who were supported
      by the regime with six fighting groups who took their orders from the Air
      Force Intelligence: Syrian militants with few Palestinians. They controlled
      key entrances to the camp. The six groups were heavily armed with mortars,
      rocket launchers and infinite ammunition. These six groups besieged
      neighboring areas (al-Hajar and Tadamon) as Yarmouk was operating as a
      lifeline to these besieged areas, pumping medical supplies, cooking gas,
      food and water.

      *EI:* Did the FSA coordinate its entry to the camp with the local committee?

      *MAN:* Of course, the FSA organized with the local militant groups whose
      job was only to protect the camp from regime thugs. And as soon as the FSA
      entered there was no confrontation with the six groups by the regime or
      with the PFLP-GC, whose paid members defected right away. The FSA went into
      the camp because of its strategic location while they were trying to
      capture Damascus.

      *EI:* How did the residents feel about the FSA entering their camp; did
      they approve of it?

      *MAN:* The residents of the camp were against the FSA stationing in it. I
      personally rejected the FSA entering the camp. The camp had a humanitarian
      role; bringing the war to the middle of it was a mistake.

      In the end we agreed upon the FSA�s entry only as a passage not a location.
      We told them, pass through to get to your next ambush but don�t stay in the

      The situation started deteriorating six days after the FSA entered the
      camp: there was no bread anymore, [and] a shortage of all the medical
      supplies needed by the four field hospitals in the camp.

      Before the FSA involved the camp in its war the camp was a humanitarian
      phenomenon: rents stayed cheap, there was plenty of food, and the medical
      support the camp offered saved many lives. Only the Islamists in the camp
      were in favor of the FSA stationing in Yarmouk.

      The regime�s fighter jets bombed the camp daily and with it the number of
      martyrs rose: at times 20 died in one day. People must understand that the
      indiscriminate bombing of the camp by the regime � killing innocent people,
      children in their playground � made the FSA�s idea more acceptable to
      Palestinian residents of the camp. The more the MiGs bombed the camp, the
      more people wanted the FSA to stay.

      *EI:* How is the situation in Yarmouk right now?

      *MAN:* The situation in the camp at the moment is unfit for living; it�s
      atrocious. There still remain around 40,000 people who can�t escape. Many
      Palestinians from Yarmouk are scattered around Syria, and at the height of
      the bombing their numbers soared to 70,000. Many fled to Lebanon, but
      Lebanon is not a friendly place for Palestinians.

      At the moment in Syria there are restrictions and arrests at the entrances
      of the camp. Food prices are at an all-time high; a bag of bread is being
      sold for $4 now while before it was less than $1. The Syrian army has
      imposed strict search orders on the food that enters the camp. They search
      every bag of bread and every tin of tuna, so substantial amounts get
      damaged before they reach people inside the camp.

      Yarmouk has been transformed from a lifeline to a bullet-riddled, bloodless

      *EI:* How do you see your role now that you are in exile in Lebanon? How
      are you helping from here?

      *MAN:* It�s ironic. While I�m in Lebanon I�m feeling more Palestinian than
      I felt in Syria. I�m now writing in local Lebanese newspapers trying to
      shed light on the refugee issue and also dedicating most of my time to
      relief work in the camps. There is plenty of aid coming to Lebanon to be
      distributed among Syrian refugees but little to none is being distributed
      among Palestinians from Syria.

      In December the regime gave people in Yarmouk eight hours to leave the
      camp. Chaos ensued and as we failed to convince people to stay we fled with
      them to Lebanon. After the humiliations and trials at the border, those who
      could afford the $17 visa fees finally entered. Luckily I managed to have a
      friend from Beirut send me $600 to pay for fleeing people who couldn�t
      afford entry fees to Lebanon.

      On that day a depressing reality hit me like a brick to the head:
      Palestinians are being humiliated in countries where they should feel
      welcome and at home.

      *Moe Ali Nayel is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. Follow
      him on Twitter:@MoeAliNay <http://twitter.com/@MoeAliNay>.*
      Tags:Moutawali Abu
      Damascus <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/damascus>
      Syria <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/syria> Palestinian refugees in
      Syria <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/palestinian-refugees-syria>Free
      Syrian Army <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/free-syrian-army>
      PFLP-GC <http://electronicintifada.net/tags/pflp-gc>

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