Over the past week, the Islamic State has made a push to overrun the Yarmouk Palestinian Refugee Camp in Damascus, Syria. The forces that protect the camp have been hollowed out by a devastating siege instituted by the Assad regime. Food and water are scarce; medical supplies and ammunition are nowhere to be found. Aid workers have repeatedly been denied access to the camp. Without some kind of intervention, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon warned that Yarmouk could become a “massacre.”
To understand how Yarmouk went from a relatively successful refugee community of 150,000 to the hellish nightmare it is today, we need to take a step back.
Before the 2011 revolution, Syria was known as one of the hospitable countries in the Middle East for Palestinians. Although Yarmouk was a “refugee camp,” it didn’t consist of tents or slums. Rather, its streets were dotted with restaurants and Internet cafes.
Since the revolution, circumstances in the camp have taken a nosedive. Situated strategically in the capital Damascus, Yarmouk became a natural battleground between the Free Syrian Army and forces loyal to the Assad regime. As the revolution ground on, Assad showed his callous disregard for human life in the camp: he instituted a full blockade. With food and other critical supplies choked off, the population in the camp wilted. Yarmouk Activists told the Guardian that cases of malnutrition, dehydration, jaundice, and post-traumatic stress disorder are now common.
Now take an already-horrific humanitarian situation and add the world’s most brutal jihadist group into the midst. Over the past two weeks, ISIS has began pushing into Yarmouk, seeking to increase their foothold in Damascus. One Yarmouk resident named Ahmed told the Guardian this week, “The situation inside the camp is catastrophic. There is no food or electricity or water, [ISIS] is killing and looting the camp, there are clashes, there is shelling. Everyone is shelling the camp.”
A natural question one might have is how ISIS could somehow manage to break the siege on Yarmouk when Assad’s forces have kept such a tight lid on it for so long. Some speculate Assad has been complicit in the recent ISIS offensive, but no officials have confirmed that.
What is definitely true is that the Yarmouk camp deserves the full attention of the international community. We can not afford to allow such a humanitarian catastrophe to occur on our watch.