Yarmouk camp victim of water wars in Syria

The camp came under siege by regime forces, leaving at least 200 people dead from starvation.

The Yarmouk camp's water supply was cut off, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe [PLHR]

The Syrian regime is using water as a tool of war in the Yarmouk camp, according to a recent report issued by the Palestinian League for Human Rights (PLHR).

According to PLHR, a diaspora network established in 2012 with contacts all over the Palestinian camps, the camp’s water supply was entirely cut off with no justification provided, leading to a humanitarian catastrophe.

“We live an atrocious tragedy and all forms of death are available here,” Abdullah al-Khateeb, a Palestinian activist living in Yarmouk, told Al Jazeera over the phone.

Caught up in the war between rebel armed groups and the Syrian army, the camp paid a high price. Of the 160,000 Palestinians who used to live in the camp, only 18,000 remain. Established in 1957, Yarmouk camp is one of nine camps hosting Palestinian refugees in Syria; the number of registered Palestinian refugees, according to UN figures, is 517,255.

RELATED: Syria’s war ‘killed 76,021’ in 2014

Since December 2012, fighting from the Syrian civil war, which followed the popular uprising in March 2011, spilled over into the camp when some rebel groups moved there. The regime claims it was fighting “extremist groups” inside the camp.

In July 2013, the camp came under siege by regime forces, leaving at least 200 people dead from starvation, accelerated by dehydration and water-related diseases. Since the blockade began, food and medical aid were prevented from entering Yarmouk, and the drinking water was cut off.

A relief activist in Tadamon, a close neighbourhood east of Yarmouk, told Al Jazeera over the phone that one of the relief agencies gave activists a few hundred dollars to buy and provide water for both Tadamon and Yarmouk.

However, the amount of water  “was barely enough for one of their streets”. Tadamon is home to over 65 families as well as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and their families.

The first day we went to distribute the water from the tank, I was threatened with arrest, then a group of fighters from FSA attacked me.

by Relief activist in Tadamon

“The first day we went to distribute the water, I was threatened with arrest, then a group of fighters from FSA attacked me,” the activist said.

The lack of water supplies is also threatening agricultural projects that some organisations carry out to ease the food shortage.

Ansar Hevi, an activist with the 15th Garden, a farmers’ solidarity network supporting besieged areas in Syria to grow their own food, expressed fears of drought, recalling the 2005 drought and its grave consequences on plantation.

As a survival tactic, people were encouraged to plant gardens in their own houses, on their rooftops or in between buildings to stave off starvation.

But in light of the current water crisis, tending for these farming projects is becoming costly as the price for an hour’s fuel (needed to pull water from wells) has risen to $30.

Eventually, “the water cut will not only affect the gardens, but the whole economic structure that developed under siege because these projects helped reduce prices of food commodities sold in the black market”.

A board member of the PLHR who gave her name as Selena Mohamed told Al Jazeera: “Even if the regime will allow some food shipments into the camp once in a while through its own organisations, this move will do little to ease the immense suffering. The water crisis will remain the most humiliating weapon of war.”

Death and brutality, Mohamed said, have many faces in Yarmouk. Besides starvation, diseases and blockades of aid, daily indiscriminate bombing with mortars, snipers and ammunition continue to kill civilians and children. 

“Yarmouk reached 540 days of siege and 110 days without drinking water.”

RELATED: Syria regime ‘using starvation as war tactic’

Between 2013 and 2014,  there were – at least – 26 ceasefire initiatives between regime forces and armed opposition groups. Many of these initiatives were discussed in Yarmouk as a possible exit since neither regime forces nor the opposition could achieve any military breakthroughs on the ground.

The talks involved the Syrian regime, rebel fighters based in the camp and Islamist groups. Most of the truces ensured that the main entrances to the camp would be opened and basic services restored. However, UNRWA is still unable to carry out humanitarian operations in the camp. 

The UN intervened in other areas in Syria, such as backing up the truce in Homs to allow besieged and starving opposition fighters to evacuate the Old City. “But it did not intervene for Palestinian camps, ” said Ala Aboud, a PLHR board member.

The PLHR report states: “Despite the regime agreement and promises that civilians would be unmolested during food deliveries, dozens were arrested by regime forces that were present in the delivery area at the camp’s entrance, and dozens more were killed during delivery operations, either by snipers or in clashes between regime and opposition forces, both parties are indifferent to the presence of civilians.”

Syria regime ‘using starvation as war tactic’

In case a settlement could not be reached, al-Khatib argues that “the discourse needs to change from lifting the blockade to evacuating the camp”.

The evacuation, however,  and according to activists, can put them at the risk of being detained by regime forces. 

Recently, several activists have been assassinated in the camp, although they say they do not know who is behind such assassinations since activists are being targeted by all parties.

The PLHR report recommendations hold several parties responsible for the deterioration of the situation in Yarmouk and demand an urgent humanitarian operation.

The PLHR report stated that the Assad regime was primarily responsible for the “genocidal war crimes” against Yarmouk camp, while it calls for putting pressure on the Syrian regime to reopen water supplies and urge all parties to resume aid to the area.

A member of the board quotes Article 6 of the Rome Statute, noting: “For the purpose of this statute, ‘genocide’ means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial or religious group… “

According to camp activists, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) operates with limited deliveries of assistance. Locals confirm that emergency sections and all medical centres are closed. Only a few doctors are available but with hardly any equipment.

Locals’ testimonies seem to match that of Daphnee Maret, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Syria, who admits that it is “the first time in over a year that we have been able to deliver aid to the people in the camp. We hope to do more.”

The PLHR report cites the failure of the ICRC to address the situation in Yarmouk camp, pointing to their previous work in Iraq and Yemen, where they “distributed water to many areas that were damaged during the then-ongoing war. It also repaired water supply networks, re-operated water pumping stations and ensured water supply to the various Iraqi cities.”

UNRWA, considered responsible for the protection and assistance of Palestinian refugees, announced that it only managed to distribute fewer than 700 parcels over the course of the entire month of December, which does not meet the minimum needs.

“Between asylum seekers, refugees and under siege, the Palestinians of Syria remain today’s most untold story in the Syrian conflict,” Aboud said.

Keeping momentum in reporting on the tormented Yarmouk, according to analysts, remains crucial in helping solve the crisis.

“It’s not a coincidence that aid began to enter Yarmouk slowly when the siege became a prominent subject for a brief period within the diaspora,” said Talal Alyan, a Palestinian-American commentator.