Palestinians flee as Isis overwhelms Yarmouk refugee camp near Damascus

12:00 Apr 4 2015 Yarmouk Refugee Camp, on outskirts of Damascus, Syria

A man walks between bullet riddled buildings at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus on June 23, 2014
(AFP, Louai Beshara)

Screenshot from YouTube video of the pianist of Yarmouk.
See The Legendary Piano of Yarmouk (uploaded Oct 2014)

More photos: The Jafra Foundation for Youth Development and Relief

Funeral of two killed by shelling inside of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, April 2015.

Shelling from inside of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, April 2015

Jamal Khalifeh, killed by shelling inside of Yarmouk refugee camp.

Shelling from inside of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, April 2015.


By Erika Solomon in Beirut for Financial Times

Militants from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) have seized nearly all of a Damascus district just outside the city centre, activists said, amid reports of atrocities in the besieged neighbourhood.

Activists on Saturday said the jihadi group may succeed in cementing a foothold in the Syrian capital, a move that would increase pressure on President Bashar al-Assad’s seat of power as he tries to fight a four-year revolt against his rule.

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The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 90 per cent of Yarmouk was in Isis hands.

Originally established as a Palestinian refugee camp, Yarmouk is a densely packed neighbourhood of Damascus that once housed half a million people. The 18,000 remaining residents, who have suffered repeated bombardment and siege during Syria’s civil war, are trapped by air strikes and fierce fighting between Isis and Palestinian militias.

Isis supporters have posted pictures of fighters beheaded by the jihadi group during the battle, sparking outrage among Palestinians across the region.

“Reports of kidnappings, beheadings and mass killings are coming out from Al- Yarmouk,” said Saeb Erekat, an member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation’s executive committee, based in the West Bank. “The priority must be to save the Palestinian refugees in the camp by creating a safe passage for them out of the death trap that Al-Yarmouk has become.”

He called on the UN, the International Committee for the Red Crescent (ICRC) and the Syrian government to help evacuate civilians. “Time is quickly running out.”

A media outlet inside the camp said local fighters helped two groups of residents to flee, but it is unclear how many remain. Yarmouk Camp News published photos of elderly residents and first aid workers sheltered in schools.

Damascus residents said the sound of air strikes and fighting was reverberating across nearby districts. “Our building is shaking from the explosions and air raids,” said a woman living near Yarmouk. “It’s terrifying.”

The fighting in Yarmouk shows how convoluted Syria’s civil war has become. The main group fighting Isis inside the camp is Aknaf Beit al-Makdis, an offshoot of the Islamist Palestinian group, Hamas, which has fought with the Syrian rebels.

Two opposition sources told the Financial Times the Syrian army had allowed a Palestinian militia allied to Assad forces to send weapons to the Hamas offshoot fighting in Yarmouk.

“It’s an extremely rare thing for the government to do anything even remotely co-operating with the opposition,” said one activist who asked not to be named. “That shows you how desperate the regime is to stop Isis from having gateway right to heart of the capital for car bombs or whatever other atrocities.”

Some opposition members say al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat al-Nusra, which has usually fought against Isis, may be helping its jihadi rival to take Yarmouk. Three large rebel groups outside Damascus formed a joint operations room to try to help fighters in Yarmouk but accuse Nusra fighters of blocking their entry, a charge the al-Qaeda affiliate denies.

The pianist of Yarmouk
Zeina Hashem Beck
The Electronic Intifada
3 April 2015

The pianist of Yarmouk pushes
his white piano everywhere
on his uncle’s vegetable cart.
He knows the symphonies
of Beethoven,
but the buildings (their eyes)
and the alleys (their echo)
demand another tune:

“Play for us about bread crumbs, blue man,
and about death at sea, play
a note for sleep, another
for the tree birds
that the camp children ate
out of hunger.
There are no theaters here—

here only this decrepit couch
in the middle of the street,
cold fingertips, skeletal dogs.
Invent then, a happy Arabic song,
so we may die, like the birds we ate,
singing, singing.”


Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet whose poetry collection, titled To Live in Autumn (Backwaters Press, 2014), won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Follow her on Twitter: @zeinabeck or on Facebook.
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