Asharq Al-Awsat in Syria's Yarmouk Camp: Battles Bury Refugee Hopes of Returning Home
The hopes of refugees in southern Damascus to return to their homes dimmed in wake of the destruction incurred during the battles between the Syrian regime forces and ISIS terrorist organization.
On April 19, areas south of the capital were bracing for a regime assault to retake them from ISIS and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that were holed up in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, Hajar al-Aswad region, and eastern part of the al-Qadam neighborhood.
The regime campaign was part of efforts to secure Damascus and its surrounding regions after the regime recaptured the Eastern Ghouta enclave and other areas from the opposition.
The regime predicted that the battle for the southern Damascus regions will “not be difficult. It will probably only take a few number of days.” It expected the assault to take the shape of the Ghouta offensive in eastern Damascus and that the armed factions would accept “settlements” in the early stages of the attack.
The settlement, however, was only accepted by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham that was holed up in a small pocket west of Yarmouk.
ISIS has demonstrated a willingness to withstand the regime onslaught and fierce fighting has been ongoing with the regime using all sorts of air, rocket and medium and light artillery power.
Footage circulated on social media of areas that were recaptured by the regime showed massive destruction with several buildings completely leveled to the ground. They also showed billowing smoke from areas that are still coming under the regime assault.
The Yarmouk camp is one of the major areas south of the capital that remains out of regime control. Administratively, it belongs to the Damascus province and forms a gateway to the southern part of the capital. It is located some seven kilometers south of Damascus and stretches about 2 kilometers. It is bordered to the south by al-Hajar al-Aswad, al-Qadam neighborhood in the west, al-Tadamon neighborhood in the east and al-Zahraa region in the north.
Dubbed the “capital of Palestinian refugees,” the camp was set up in 1957 in a small agricultural area. Over time, it transformed into the largest camp for Palestinian refugees in Syria and neighboring countries. The refugees have improved their living conditions, building houses that can accommodate large families. It eventually became a vital region that attracts Syrians from the countryside given its close proximity to Damascus.
Before the eruption of the Syrian war, some 200,000 Palestinian refugees out of a total of 450,000 throughout Syria were living in the Yarmouk camp. Besides Yarmouk, there are 15 refugee camps spread over six cities in the country.
Living alongside the Palestinians are some 400,000 Syrians, who hail from several provinces, bringing the total population at the camp to some 750,000 people, many of whom came to the camp during the second year of the war.
The repetition the Ghouta scenario in southern Damascus revived hope among the displaced in Yarmouk that they may soon return to their homes. They anxiously and religiously watched the news and followed social media for any updates that could signal their imminent return to their houses.
These hopes, however, began to wane as the battles continued without abating and the images of massive destruction started to emerge.
A man in his 50s escaped Yarmouk to a northwestern Damascus countryside suburb over five years ago. He left with his family and started to despair at the images on television and the news of the ongoing offensives.
“I don’t think we will go back. What will we return to? Where will we stay? How will we live?” he wondered to Asharq Al-Awsat.
The man was born and raised in the camp. He despairs at what has come to it during the war after the many beautiful years he spent there.
“We were hoping to only make some small renovations to the houses, such as fixing doors, windows, sewage pipes and electricity lines. The scene, however, is very clear now. There is nothing left in the camp but rubble and destruction,” he lamented.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Syria (OCHA) estimates that 7.5 million people were displaced from their homes to areas they believed were safer. Over 5 million have sought refuge abroad.
The regime and its allies sought to undermine the severity of the catastrophe at the Yarmouk camp. Some Palestinian factions that fought with the regime sought to bring hope by claiming that they were working with the regime to destroy ISIS so that the refugees could go back home.
Many refugees remain skeptical of this statement, because the rebuilding could take years. The reconstruction itself will also be very expensive. The returning families will unlikely be able to cover the cost given the astronomical rise in prices in Syria.
An employee at a regime department, who had left the camp with her two children, and now resides with her brother questioned the ability to rebuild what was lost.
At a salary of 80 dollars a month, “I barely have enough to feed my family. How can we possibly secure millions to rebuild a house?” she asked.
Since the eruption of the war seven years ago, food costs witnessed a gradual rise, reaching unprecedented figures given the local currency’s drop in exchange rate against the dollar. One dollar now amounts to 450 Syrian pounds. This led to prices doubling tenfold from what they were before the war when the dollar equaled 50 pounds.
A 2016 study by a pro-regime Syrian opinion center said that 87 percent of Syrians were living in poverty, according to World Bank standards. Experts say that a simple renovation of a 100-meter squared house could cost over $50,000.
To compound matters, since the beginning of the war, the regime and its militias have looted the people’s possessions from their homes throughout the country. Upon their return to their homes in areas that have been recaptured by the regime, people are often surprised to see their houses and shops stripped of their furniture and belongings. Homes were stripped of their pipes, windows, doors, electrical wires, even toilets.
Some residents have compared the destruction at the Yarmouk camp to the 1948 Nakba that saw the Palestinians kicked out of their land by Israel.
“There is no escape. We are destined to remain refugees,” said a man in his 70s.