As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between News Deeply and a 33-year-old Palestinian activist from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, who asked not to be named. Here, he discusses how Yarmouk became was once “safe place” for activists in the wartime capital, until the FSA moved in.
Yarmouk, the largest Palestinian camp in the country and the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, has been under siege by the [Syrian] army since December 18. The majority of the residents, which includes more than 150,000 Palestinians, left the day after the regime first bombed us with MIGs on December 16.
Some 70,000 Palestinians returned in the weeks that followed, and the remainder have been living in schools in Damascus or outside the country. In the past few days, many more have fled back to Yarmouk. They are afraid that if they stay in the city, their sons will be stopped at checkpoints and drafted into the army under the new fatwa.
Yarmouk, our ‘Safe Place’
All of the Syrian revolution factions used the camp for meetings. There, the Local Coordination Committees could be freer. The main objective for activists was to keep their families away from harm. We called it our “safe place.”
At the camp we would care for the wounded and provide food and medicine. Jordan and Turkey are calling out for money and help from the UNHCR. But in Yarmouk we were taking care of 150,000 displaced people since July of last year without outside help. We were just 300 Syrians and Palestinians. We did our duty.
Yarmouk was a safe haven during assaults on neighboring areas. I saw the army try to invade al-Hajar al-Aswad district five times, and every time the soldiers fled. The civilians would retreat to Yarmouk and the fighters would go to the front to defend the area and spare civilian blood.
It was also the main market for all of southern Damascus. People would come all the way from East Ghouta (eastern outskirts of Damascus) to buy eggs, medicine, bread and gas.
Part of my work with the LCCs was the refusal to militarize our camp or community… to keep it as a safe haven.
Our next main problem was with a group called the GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine—General Command]. Its leader, Ahmed Jibril, was using Palestinians to defend the regime. In August, he started to send militants to join the Syrian Army.
But not all GC members are pro-regime; most of them believe they are defending Yarmouk. Most refused to fight the Free Syrian Army.
Palestinians know how to fight, but we know [the Syrian conflict] is not our battle. If we were against the FSA, the rebels could never enter Yarmouk. We don’t want to kill any Syrian people, but we also accept that people have the right to defend themselves.
The regime realized that there was a huge movement going on under the table in Yarmouk. Yarmouk is the capital of the Palestinian diaspora. It is like a city, with over a million people. But the majority of the population are Syrians, so whatever is happening in Yarmouk is a microcosm of what is happening throughout the capital.
We Want the FSA Out
The FSA invaded the camp two hours after the regime bombed us with MIGs, and claimed it was liberated. They started to shoot in celebration while people were still running for their lives. Most everyone fled within three hours. The regime had just bombed the UNRWA school and a mosque with displaced people, and the FSA started yelling “takbeer!” [a popular Islamic battle cry].
The FSA broke into houses of the GC and Syrians who they claimed were working for the regime. They looted and occupied the houses. They took over our hospitals and stole medicine. People felt it was the same as the nakba [the much-decried Palestinian exodus following Israeli statehood in 1948].
We lost all of our work of two years when the FSA occupied the camp. [Now] we can restore the camp, but with the FSA is there it is more difficult. And if the Palestinians pick up guns, they will not put them down.
We want the regime to stop targeting us with rockets and mortars and arresting people at the gate of the camp. We want to be a shelter again because, as Palestinians, we have no place else to go.
A Fight to Come, Among Palestinians
If the revolution is victorious, and I believe it will happen sooner or later, then our battle will start. Not with Israel, but with our Palestinian factions that kept quiet when the regime killed our people and shelled our bakeries and houses.
All of the Palestinian factions, including the Palestine Liberation Organization, left us on our own. So did the United Nations Relief and Works Agency [which works with Palestinian refugees in the near East].
Most of the UNRWA leadership is from the Baath party, because they needed to be approved by the Syrian government. But then the regime bombed the UNRWA school and we didn’t read any declarations from them until days later.
We discovered a UNRWA warehouse full of food midway through the siege, when hungry people had resorted to eating very raw food. The FSA fighters discovered it and started to take it for themselves, but we stopped them. We distributed the food to 3,000 families. We have thousands of families living under a very strong siege and the UNRWA says nothing.
We will never forgive our Palestinian factions for this. We will not allow any of them to work inside our camps again. These factions killed us with their silence.