They have been starving for months already and relief agencies have struggled to get any food through to the besieged residents of Yarmouk. Now, in a crisis “unprecedented in living memory” the food has run out. On Easter Sunday when the world celebrates the tenets of Christianity, 18,000 people face a hunger that cannot be met. There have been no deliveries for ten days and the Syrian authorities have said they will stop all trucks over the Easter Sunday weekend. The situation is so appalling that the trapped can only chew on leaves and grass.
Yarmouk is officially UNWRA-assisted yet the UN Relief and Works Agency have faced massive difficulties in getting past the government blockades. They have the food parcels, and they know that a minimum of 700 each and every day need to be handed out to prevent the population from perishing, but conditions keep worsening. At one point they could get around 100 parcels in to the compound, but that was before the supplies lines were cut. No more will be allowed until rebel groups inside surrender.
Chris Guinness, the spokesman for UNWRA is desperately trying to call attention to the severity of the situation. The “sheer humanitarian facts call out for a response” he says. “Without that, the humanity of all of us must be seriously questioned.”
Guinness speaks of women dying in childbirth, serious cases of malnutrition in children and people eating animal feed. And all this is happening in a “capital city of a member state.” Yarmouk lies just on the outskirts of Damascus. It was once the biggest Palestinian camp but 140,000 fled after the conflict began in March 2011. Those who could not escape became trapped as the city became reduced to rubble by continual bombardment. Guinness notes that the response was “robust” when it became clear that hundreds had been killed with chemical weapons. He sincerely hopes the response can be equally robust as many thousands face malnutrition and imminent starvation.
UNWRA’s food parcels last for ten days. As it is now past ten days since they were last “authorized” to distribute, they know for certain that the besieged citizens will have absolutely nothing to eat.Guinness has issued a demand on behalf of UNWRA that all parties cease hostilities and allow the humanitarian access to resume.
This is all despite the agreement that was brokered in January to allow free access to aid workers, an agreement that has never been kept. Last month it broke down completely and the Syrian government troops remain on offensive on the perimeter. This also makes it near impossible to escape.
Abu Issa, 60, had three sons, who all tried to get out. He has no idea if they made it or not. He knows they made a deal with a people smuggler but heard they were arrested at the first checkpoint. They had hoped to escape across the border and out of Syria. Abu lives on grass and on the hope that his sons are still alive somewhere.
The UN security council has been largely unable to do anything, or to effect the kind of “robust response” Guinness calls for, and which is so desperately needed. Russia and China remain opposed to interference and allied to Syria.
The crisis is now into its fourth year and the destruction is devastating. Valerie Amos, UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs reports 24,000 are besieged throughout Syria. In excess of 9 million require humanitarian assistance with an equivalent number internally displaced. 2 million have fled and at least 150,000 have been killed.
It is beginning to be discussed that the Assad regime is using the technique of starvation as a weapon of war, and this can be substantiated by tracking the UN documents on its food programme deliveries since the resolution. Food is “critically short”in opposition held territories. Assad appears to be giving the besieged a dire message. Submit. Or die.
As Easter Sunday celebrations carry on in many countries, with the breaking of the lent fast for believers and the consumption of rich and delicious foods, the people of Yarmouk will scratch in the dirt looking for spices or scraps. Abu Issa will pull grass from the garden that he shares with the animals. Elderly, infirm, children and infants will all suffer and there is no relief in sight. Easter Sunday, the day the food ran out. How much longer can the world stand back and let this happen?
By Kate Henderson