What was once a land steeped in history and diverse culture is now a war-torn nation reduced to rubble.
“Under siege you can survive death and killing and kidnapping dozens of times; but staying alive doesn’t mean you’re a hero, just that the killer was a coward, and that the Lord has protected you.”
Abdullah al-Khateeb, a Palestinian human rights activist from Syria’s Yarmouk camp, wrote those lines while under siege in southern Damascus. His work – documenting deteriorating conditions inside Yarmouk when international aid groups could no longer access the camp, and coordinating farming and mental health programmes to help residents survive the government-imposed siege – has repeatedly made him a target.
In March 2015, armed men attempted to kidnap Khateeb outside his house. The next month, fighters with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group reportedly and threatened him. And just a few weeks ago, Khateeb survived an assassination attempt when two men on a motorcycle fired off several machine-gun rounds, hitting him once in the chest. ISIL’s local emir claimed responsibility for the attack, Khateeb said.
“I’m fine, for one reason: I still believe in what I do,” Khateeb told Al Jazeera. “I work with what the revolution taught me.”
Yarmouk still exists in name and place, but little of its old life remains. Just several thousand civilians of an original population of 200,000 remain inside, while some two-thirds of the camp has been destroyed.
The worst of the siege in 2013 and 2014 strangled life inside the once-bustling Damascus suburb, killing more than 170 residents, and international organisations no longer deliver aid to the camp. Former Yarmouk residents say the ones left behind are mostly families and elderly people who are resigned to stay in Yarmouk until the end.
Since the latest attempt on his life, Khateeb has continued his work documenting Yarmouk’s five-year story of war, siege and terror, even as he watched many of his friends and colleagues die or flee to Europe.
“Near [Yarmouk], places like Yalda and Babila are under the control of the Free Syrian Army, so security tends to be much better … But the Islamic State is constantly trying to destabilise those areas through bombings and assassinations,” Khateeb said, noting that the presence of such cells poses “one of the biggest risks we’re facing now, on top of the Syrian regime”.
The Palestinian League for Human Rights – Syria (PLHR), a Sweden-based human rights organisation that Khateeb helped co-found in 2012, has called for him to be for emergency medical treatment and safe haven, noting in a : “We strongly believe that whoever is behind the attempted assassination will try again until Khateeb’s voice is silenced for good.”
Khateeb has been responsible for a range of human rights and relief projects in Yarmouk since the beginning of the 2011 uprising, including an urban farming project and psychosocial services for children affected by fighting in and around the camp. Khateeb has also trained young human rights defenders in besieged southern Damascus.
With simple tools, he collected the stories of a camp that for two years saw the worst of the siege and starvation imposed by the Syrian government.
Thaer al-Sahli, a Palestinian-Syrian poet and filmmaker who fled Yarmouk for the Netherlands in 2014, said Khateeb’s work to document the ongoing atrocities inside the camp has been invaluable.
“I remember Abdullah during the bombing of Tadamun in Yarmouk … carrying packages of medicine over his shoulder,” Sahli told Al Jazeera.
“[Later], he was compiling a visual archive of Yarmouk camp … to be worked on in the future, to preserve the story of what happened in the camp,” he said. “With simple tools, he collected the stories of a camp that for two years saw the worst of the siege and starvation imposed by the Syrian government.”
Khateeb once wrote that “oppression breeds extremism”, said Erin Kilbride of the Dublin-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders – and it is this type of sentiment that has helped to make him a target.
“People who want to annihilate the fight for rights in Syria, and replace it with violent extremism, are seeking out and killing those still resisting oppression,” Kilbride said.
Khateeb is by no means the only human rights defender to be targeted in Yarmouk. Indeed, the list of activists and community leaders murdered in the camp grows each year, with the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria documenting 16 assassinations since 2012.
More than 3,000 Palestinians have died at the hands of the Syrian government and armed groups since the uprising began in 2011, while hundreds more are missing or unaccounted for.
In January 2013, Ghassan al-Shehabi, who ran a Yarmouk-based publishing house that produced material about the Palestinian right of return and other humanitarian issues, was as he drove his wife and two young daughters, and a shipment of bread for Yarmouk families, back into the camp.
In October 2013, actor and writer Hassan Hassan, who trained young filmmakers and produced documentaries and satirical videos from Yarmouk,
And in February 2015, activist Firas al-Naji – who was a close friend of Khateeb’s and worked with the PLHR – was shot in the head inside his home. No one claimed responsibility for his death.
The list goes on.
“I’m not optimistic for the future of Yarmouk, although I hope the situation improves for civilians who have paid the price because of their attachment to their land and identity,” Khateeb said.
“But I have a great hope that the revolution will be long-term, not short-term. There is now a generation born or grown up in revolution that has learned about liberty and justice … [They will be] more conscious and experienced, and able to change the reality of things in Syria towards a better society.”