The lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man has a new word – Yarmouk. It was once the bustling, vibrant heart of the Palestine refugee community in Syria, where 160,000 Palestinians thrived in harmony with Syrians of all stripes. Over the last six months, it has become synonymous with widespread infant malnutrition, women dying in childbirth for lack of medical care, and besieged communities reduced to eating animal feed; all this in the capital city of a U.N. member state in the 21st century.
Yarmouk sums up the tragic, profound suffering of civilians in the Syria conflict. It should not have to.
This tragedy has a human face. Baby Khaled, at 14 months old, is already a war child. He was born as Syria’s pitiless conflict engulfed Yarmouk; armed opposition groups entered the camp and government forces responded by encircling it. Trapped with his parents and four siblings, in his short life he has seen more suffering than most of us will experience in a lifetime.
Khaled embodies the tragedy of Syria’s conflict, but also the opportunities that we must grasp. He would have struggled to survive and most likely be dead had it not been for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency’s Dr. Ibrahim Mohammad, who treated him for a severe form of malnutrition known as Kwashiorkor, caused by a prolonged lack of protein. He also had symptoms of rickets.
“When I first saw Khaled he looked like a 5-month-old,” said Mohammad. “He was about to die. Khaled had survived on water and almost no solid food for two months.”
When asked about life in Yarmouk, his 29-year-old mother, Noor, becomes agitated. “Hell is better,” she said. “We boiled spices with water and drank it. We ate grass until all the grass was gone.”
When she gave birth to Khaled at home, she had breast milk, but with her poor diet, that stopped after two months. Cow’s milk smuggled into the camp was prohibitively expensive and no powder milk was available. Khaled went without. He was lucky. According to Noor, her 4-month-old niece starved to death.
“Everyone assumed they would soon be dead because of hunger or shelling,” Noor said. “Death was everywhere. One of my neighbors died in childbirth. The midwife was called away midbirth, to assist another woman. When she returned my neighbor had bled to death.”
There are many Khaleds and many more Noors in Yarmouk. U.N. relief workers have encountered them every morning since Jan. 18 after Syrian authorities authorized and facilitated the entry of UNRWA food supplies. Each day, crowds of gaunt figures await the distribution team on Rama Street, at the northern edge of the camp. After a check of ID cards, some proceed across the no-man’s land, defined by opposing sniper positions, and join the long queues to the distribution area.
The wait is stressful and exhausting. At the end of each day, once darkness falls and the UNRWA distribution team returns to base in Damascus, hundreds of civilians, in a visible state of desperation, fatigue and anguish, return to their harsh existence inside Yarmouk, many of them with nothing. On our best day, we delivered more than a thousand food parcels, each containing enough supplies to feed a family for about 10 days. On more difficult days, we have managed as few as 26 or as many as 645. War is no respecter of need.
Like all humanitarian work in conflict, rewards are small, frustrations are manifold and danger is everywhere. On Jan. 14, a UNRWA relief convoy of six trucks with food for 6,000 people along with 10,000 doses of polio vaccine and some medical supplies left our main warehouse in Damascus for Yarmouk.
On this occasion, the UNRWA was required to use the southern entrance to Yarmouk. This meant the convoy had to drive 12½ miles through an area of intense armed conflict, in which numerous armed opposition groups, including some of the most extreme jihadist organizations, have a strong and active presence. Citing security concerns at the time, the Syrian authorities did not permit us to use the northern entrance to Yarmouk, which is under government control, and which is generally regarded as more likely to be accessible with relatively less risk.
As the convoy approached Yarmouk from the south, it was joined by a government security escort, enabling the vehicles to reach the last government-controlled checkpoint. The convoy was cleared to proceed beyond and the Syrian authorities provided a bulldozer to go ahead to clear the road of debris, earth mounds and other obstructions. However, as this was happening, the bulldozer was struck by gunfire.
It was forced to withdraw, though with no casualties. Thereafter, bursts of gunfire, including heavy machine gun fire, erupted near the UNRWA vehicles. One mortar exploded close by. The UNRWA team withdrew at this point, mercifully without casualties.
We were undaunted. The UNRWA’s humanitarian mission continues. After successful access to Yarmouk via the northern entrance, we have now delivered more than 6,000 basic food parcels and 10,000 polio vaccines.
This is not enough. We need more. We need secure, substantial and sustained access. And we need this for all civilians in Syria. There are many Yarmouks.
After four weeks of UNRWA nutrition and medication, Baby Khaled has been transformed. His lifeless face now carries a smile, his swollen abdomen and limbs look healthy. Today he weighs as much as an 8-month-old. He grew exponentially with modest assistance, and with continued medical care the UNRWA’s health department is confident he will reach the size and weight of a normal, healthy baby of his age.
Nature will take its course, we hope, and perhaps with a nurturing, stable environment, eventually Khaled will achieve his full human potential. That remains our goal for him and for all our beneficiaries in Yarmouk and beyond.
We must see Khaled’s rapid recovery and that of his mother as symbols of hope, as living symbols of our commitment to the people of Yarmouk and to all civilians in Syria.
Yarmouk has been a challenge to the humanity of all of us. The UNRWA is rising to that challenge. We must all rise to that challenge. For while the people of Yarmouk and other civilians in Syria are deprived of their dignity, the dignity of all of us is diminished.
Perhaps ultimately the word Yarmouk can take on another meaning. Perhaps when the war is over, Yarmouk will come to be seen as an example of human compassion, where the pitilessness of war was overcome by the sheer force of human dignity.
Christopher Gunness is director of advocacy and strategic communications for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency in the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus.