An estimated 60 percent of Syria’s Yarmouk refugee camp for Palestinians has been destroyed as government forces and their allies escalate a military offensive against armed groups in the Damascus-area camp, according to a watchdog group.
Citing an eyewitness, the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria said on Friday that the destruction has largely been caused by barrel bombs, missiles and shelling.
The group said that “families were buried under the rubble of their homes” in Yarmouk, where an estimated 3,000 people still reside.
On Wednesday, Palestinian refugee Salah al-Abayat was killed by Syrian government air strikes on the camp, bringing the total number of people killed to 31 since April 19, when the latest bout of fighting started.
On April 19, the Syrian government and allied Palestinian armed groups launched a renewed military offensive against armed groups – including the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) – in the besieged refugee camp.
On Thursday, Palestinian political party Hamas issued an appeal to all sides involved in the fighting to reach a truce.
That same day, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), warned of “catastrophic consequences” of the intensified violence in Yarmouk and the surrounding areas, including al-Hajar al-Aswad and Yalda.
“Yarmouk and its inhabitants have endured indescribable pain and suffering over years of conflict,” Pierre Krahenbuhl, UNRWA’s commissioner-general, said in a statement.
“We are deeply concerned about the fate of thousands of civilians, including Palestine refugees, after more than a week of dramatically increased violence.”
The UN group said that there are no hospitals currently operational in the camp, which has been blockaded by government forces on the one hand, and armed opposition groups on the other for several years.
“The intense bombing and shelling has reportedly damaged thousands of homes,” UNRWA said in its statement, calling for “immediate granting of safe passage for civilians wishing to leave the camp and surrounding areas”.
UNRWA added: “There is no more running water and very little electricity.”
An estimated 200,000 people – Palestinian refugees, Syrians and others – lived in Yarmouk before Syria’s war started in March 2011.
Since 2013, government forces and armed groups loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have imposed a harsh siege on Yarmouk, restricting the flow of food, medicine and other humanitarian goods into the camp.
As the siege wore on, residents of Yarmouk were reduced to eating grass and stray animals to survive, according to reports at the time.
In March 2015, the situation in Yarmouk worsened when ISIL invaded the camp and took control of most of its territory.
On April 22, Action Group for Palestinians of Syria, the Palestinian Return Centre, the France-based Democratic Republic Studies Centre and the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression published a joint report detailing the grim situation in Yarmouk.
According to that report – Yarmouk Set on Fire (PDF) – the camp had been bombed twice every 90 seconds since the start of the latest military offensive on April 19.
Last Sunday alone, Yarmouk was bombarded with 140 Syrian and Russian air strikes, 78 barrel bombs and 98 surface-to-surface missiles, the report said.
Upwards of 430,000 Palestinian refugees still live in Syria, many trapped in besieged or hard-to-reach areas, according to UNRWA.
Action Group for Palestinians of Syria says at least 3,729 Palestinian refugees have been killed during Syria’s civil war, while 309 are considered missing and another 1,674 are currently detained.
SANA, the Syrian government’s state media outlet, said on Friday that government forces were advancing in several areas in southern Damascus, including al-Hajar al-Aswad, the neighbourhood situated adjacent to Yarmouk.
Many Palestinian refugees from Yarmouk have been displaced to al-Hajar al-Aswad.
Friday’s report came just one day after SANA reported that government forces had killed “dozens of terrorists” in the area.
Throughout seven years of war in Syria, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions have fled Syria or are displaced within the country’s borders.