The deep­est cir­cle of hell

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION - By Ja­mal Ja­mal is a Pales­tinian Syr­ian hu­man rights ac­tivist who was re­cently dis­placed from Yar­mouk af­ter an Is­lamic State attack on the camp. His full name has been with­held to pro­tect his safety.

For weeks, Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, aided by Al Nusra Front, waged a street war in Syria’s Yar­mouk refugee camp against Ak­naf Beit alMaqdis, an anti-gov­ern­ment bat­tal­ion.

Snipers tar­geted any­thing that moved. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment also launched aerial at­tacks tar­get­ing civil­ian ar­eas, in­clud­ing drop­ping about 50 bar­rel bombs, two of them on Pales­tinian Hos­pi­tal this month. Re­ports that Is­lamic State has left Yar­mouk are in­ac­cu­rate; it has merely re­dis­tributed its forces in the camp and Al Nusra re­mains as well. The res­i­dents’ sit­u­a­tion is still dire.

The Is­lamic State at­tacks started April 1, but the As­sad regime first sealed off Yar­mouk from the out­side world in 2013. This 2-year-long siege made me feel old be­fore my time. I was born in Yar­mouk in 1989 and lived there un­til re­cently, when I had to leave for my safety.

Yar­mouk is where more than 180,000 Pales­tini­ans once lived, made refugees in 1948 by the cre­ation of Is­rael. All but 14,000 to 15,000 have now fled. Not al­lowed to re­turn to land and homes taken from us decades ago, those who re­main are trapped and are strug­gling des­per­ately to stave off the Is­lamic State as­sault.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment has de­clared the camp a war zone and over­seen the sys­tem­atic de­struc­tion of our her­itage, houses and fu­ture. It has pre­vented aid de­liv­er­ies, which means no med­i­cal sup­plies for the wounded, no food for the sur­vivors; wa­ter was cut off in Septem­ber. By 2014, at least 200 camp res­i­dents had died, most of star­va­tion, as re­ported by Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

“I am thirsty — we haven’t had wa­ter for some days now. Af­ter all this, will we die from wa­ter scarcity?” was the mes­sage a friend, trapped in a dif­fer­ent part of Yar­mouk, texted me re­cently.

The United Na­tions Re­lief and Works Agency wrote this month that the “peo­ple are starv­ing and ter­ri­fied” in Yar­mouk. It called on “the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, in­clud­ing the United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil, to take swift po­lit­i­cal ac­tion to en­sure that all civil­ians are pro­tected in ac­cor­dance with the U.N. char­ter and in­ter­na­tional law. Fail­ure to do so could lead to the gravest and most ap­palling of con­se­quences for civil­ians in Yar­mouk.”

U.N. Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Ban Ki-moon called Yar­mouk “the deep­est cir­cle of hell” in Syria. It is, he said, “be­gin­ning to re­sem­ble a death camp.”

Be­fore the Is­lamic State at­tacks, even amid all the vi­o­lence and de­pri­va­tion forced on us by the As­sad regime, my friends and I had man­aged to cre­ate a sem­blance of a liv­able ex­is­tence. We planted a gar­den and dis­trib­uted food to our neigh­bors. We es­tab­lished cour­ses on cit­i­zen­ship and hu­man rights, on first aid, on project man­age­ment, plan­ning and im­ple­men­ta­tion. We also es­tab­lished sup­port projects for chil­dren. The Is­lamic State mil­i­tants, how­ever, had no in­ter­est in our ini­tia­tives. They de­stroyed our me­dia of­fice and those of re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tions in Yar­mouk. What is next for us? More than half a mil­lion Pales­tinian refugees in Syria yearn to re­turn home to Pales­tine. Yet that op­tion — that right — is not raised in the West. Jewish im­mi­gra­tion is al­lowed all over the world, but Pales­tinian refugees are not al­lowed home. “Born Pales­tinian, Born Black,” as Pales­tinian poet Suheir Ham­mad says. We are, in West­ern eyes, in­fe­rior.

Our cause is rhetor­i­cally deemed sa­cred to the Syr­i­ans who wield power, as well as to the Arab kings and pres­i­dents who praise it. But they do lit­tle or noth­ing to re­verse our limited rights and dis­pos­ses­sion. No neigh­bor­ing Arab coun­try will open its doors to Pales­tinian refugees, even as they take in Syr­i­ans.

We used to chant, “The Syr­i­ans and the Pales­tini­ans are one,” and the Syr­i­ans who have helped shel­ter our dis­placed are our broth­ers. Yet we Pales­tini­ans face an even greater un­cer­tainty than our Syr­ian friends. We need more than tem­po­rary shel­ter — af­ter all, that is what Yar­mouk was sup­posed to be.

In our great­est hour of need in 66 years, we want to re­turn home, to Pales­tine. And if that is too much for the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to bear, we need to be evac­u­ated to a place where we can live with dig­nity and rights, and with­out fear of yet an­other Nakba, an­other cat­a­strophic dis­pos­ses­sion.

The Yar­mouk Pales­tinian refugee camp in Syria goes from bad to worse.

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