Stretching to the horizon, in the shell-shocked remains of what was once a city, the desperate people of Yarmouk in Syria queued for food this week as a tiny amount of aid finally got through to them.
The United Nations Relief and Works agency (UNWRA) released heart-breaking photographs of the thousands who waited patiently for a meager 450 parcels of emergency rations. Some international news crews also made it through to witness the pitiful and painful sight. Estimates vary, but there may be as many as 160,000 human beings who have been trapped inside the ruins of Yarmouk in Syria since last July. It lies approximately five miles from the center of Damascus. Among the blackened, broken walls and piles of rubble, the scene is apocalyptic.
After these many months of complete isolation, with most attempts to get food and medicine through hampered by the incessant fighting, the traumatized people are suffering from malnutrition, and were described as “ghosts” by the head of the UNWRA. Filippo Grandi was shocked by the destruction he saw. He said that not one building was left that was not an empty shell. It was the state of the people that affected him the most. Having been without food and clean water for so long, but also living in fear of the continual fighting, he said many were barely able to speak.
Despite the thousands in the achingly long queue for the tiny amount of food available, Grandi was worried about those who would not have been strong enough to make their way to the distribution point. The elderly, vulnerable children and the weak, he surmised, would have been left, once again, without any help whatsoever. UNWRA only has statistics for the 18,000 Palestinian refugees they know to be trapped in Yarmouk. There is an unknown number of others in this hellhole in Syria. Some were said to have been living off animal feed. Others have subsisted on leaves. There were 100,000 Palestinians there before the war; many have fled. They join the six million who have had to flee their homes since this conflict began in 2011.
Of those who are still there, fifty are said to have died from starvation during the winter, and mothers have been shot at by snipers are they attempt to pick plants to feed their families.
With these quantities to feed, the 7,000 food parcels that have been able to be delivered in the recent weeks are literally just a “drop in the ocean.” The parcel contains tinned meat, rice and lentils, and is designed to last for 10 days for 8 persons. They are handed over in a “no-man’s land” which lies between the interior of the city and the government-controlled checkpoint, overlooked by snipers. They have also managed to distribute some quantities of polio vaccine.
Christopher Guinness, also of UNWRA, spoke of how the pictures had moved him tremendously. “Row upon row of gaunt faces” he described, “hunger-ravaged features of children” and “serried ranks of grimy, ragged figures” were all “vignettes of inhumanity.” For anyone who looked on with compassion fatigue, accustomed to such images on the nightly news, he said that for UNWRA, they were the daily reality they were attempting to deal with.
The scale of the suffering in Yarmouk is terrible, and it is not the only place where the Syrian refugee crisis is appalling. The UN Security Council has passed a resolution (on February 23rd) to demand that humanitarian operations are not restricted in Syria. On the ground in practice, as reported by Filippo Grandi, it is a daily battle to get aid through. Resolution or no resolution, he has once again being prevented from going in with more aid this week. This is since the three-day visit when he made the comments above. He remains gravely concerned about the situation in Yarmouk, and says that the people there have “suffered enough.”
By Kate Henderson