Supplies Reach Desperate Near Damascus: "Unbelievable devastation" among Palestinians at Yarmouk Camp

Amid “unbelievable devastation,” the United Nations agency charged with ensuring the well-being of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East has been able to deliver life-saving supplies to families in a camp on the outskirts of Damascus, where nearly every building is an empty shell and the war-weary, desperate people have suffered unparalleled deprivation.

As massive crowds lined up with “row upon row of gaunt faces,” the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) distributed 450 food parcels on Feb. 24 in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk today, bringing to 7,493 the total number of food parcels distributed since 18 January.

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“Significantly, the UNRWA team was permitted to work from an UNRWA facility in Yarmouk for the first time since December 2012,” said spokesperson Christopher Gunness, who added: “This represents a highly encouraging step towards re-establishing full services and humanitarian access to Yarmouk.”

The UNRWA team received authorisation to resume food distribution inside Yarmouk at 2 p.m. local time and proceeded from the northern Bateekhah entrance to UNRWA’s Tabgha School. UNRWA vehicles carried 450 parcels to the school, where aid was distributed for about four hours.

“Despite the presence of large crowds, the distribution was orderly with no security incidents or pauses,” said Mr. Gunness, who also emphasized that UNRWA staff were permitted to manage the distribution process in its entirety, without the involvement of third parties.

He said that while intense humanitarian needs remain, UNRWA welcomes this encouraging development and is assured that expanded humanitarian access will be maintained over the coming days. “The Agency stands ready to rapidly re-establish services and increase humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Gunness added.

After fighting broke out late at night on Feb. 7, forcing UNRWA to temporarily suspend its aid deliveries, the Agency has had only intermittent access to the camp in the past two weeks. An UNRWA food parcel feeds a family of between five and eight for 10 days. There are 18,000 Palestinians in the camp and an unknown number of Syrians.

When partial humanitarian access was granted on 18 January and 20 February, UNRWA had successfully distributed 7,000 food parcels, 10,000 polio vaccines and a range of other medical supplements to civilians inside the camp. Prior to the armed conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, Yarmouk – a suburb just south of Damascus – was home to over 160,000 Palestine refugees.

During his visit to the camp two days ago, UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi painted a grim picture of the situation there, telling reporters later that “the devastation is unbelievable. There is not one single building that I have seen that is not an empty shell by now.”

What was even more shocking was the state of the people inside. With much of the camp destroyed and passageways blocked with barricades, “the people coming from within Yarmouk appear suddenly near [our] distribution point. It’s like the appearance of ghosts. These are people that have not been out, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medicines, clean water – all the basics – but also probably completely subjected to fear,” he said.

Since December 2012, fighting has caused at least 140,000 Palestine refugees to flee their homes in Yarmouk, as armed opposition groups established a presence in the area, with Government forces controlling the periphery.

Starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid have contributed to some 100 people dying in the camp in recent months, according to UN figures.

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