After years of displacement and months of running around to obtain the required government permits, 74-year-old Um Ahmad finally visited her home in Yarmouk camp near Damascus. She found only ruins.
“It is completely destroyed,” she told Al Jazeera on the phone. “My home, my neighbourhood, they are unrecognisable. Even the wiring inside the walls of my house has been ripped off.”
Um Ahmad is among 160,000 Palestinian Syrians who were forced to abandon Yarmouk amid clashes between the Syrian government forces and the rebels and later between the military and the armed group ISIL (ISIS).
She saw it as a second banishment. In 1948, her family was among hundreds of thousands of those who were expelled from their homes in Palestine by Israel causing an exodus of Palestinians to neighbouring countries and turning them into refugees.
Yarmouk became home to many of those Palestinians and a symbol of Palestinian resistance to Israel outside occupied territories.
Once a vibrant camp, it was the seventh most destroyed neighbourhood in the Syrian civil war and is now a wasteland of concrete. The aid workers who have managed to visit Yarmouk describe the scenes as apocalyptic and say the inhabitants may well consider their return impossible, at least for a long time.
According to information from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees [UNRWA], only 604 Palestinian refugee families had been given permission by the Syrian government to return as of January. Half of them have moved back and started to live in the camp.
There are neither functioning schools nor hospitals, even basic amenities such as water and electricity are scarce. UNRWA has been desperately trying to operationalise just one building to cater to the needs of those who have returned but the donor countries are unwilling to foot the bill.
The donors are reluctant to fund any sort of reconstruction, even for humanitarian purposes, until Western sanctions against rebuilding Syria have been lifted.
“One thing UNRWA is trying to do is to rehabilitate one of our structures in Yarmouk to turn it into a kind of multipurpose building to try to respond to the acute needs of Palestinians who have returned to live in the rubble,” Tamara al-Rifai, UNRWA’s spokeswoman, told Al Jazeera.
“If we could rehabilitate one building, we would look into creating space for a health centre, a distribution centre [food and non-food], and maybe even host a few classes for the kids who have returned,” she added.
“This is purely out of humanitarian imperative and is completely separate from any larger political discussion about reconstruction,” said Rifai. “Our position is that UNRWA will seek to rehabilitate its structures when and if our own community of Palestinian refugees have returned and requires us to deliver services.”
Several Palestinian activists, however, claimed the government has allowed only loyalists to return to Yarmouk and actively discouraged everyone else.
They said they are concerned the Syrian government is systematically expropriating several homes, shops, and entire streets in the name of redevelopment. The government has also asked claimants to provide original documents proving ownership that many might have lost in the war, and blocked entry of the internally displaced Palestinians through checkpoints ostensibly to protect them from crumbling buildings.
Many activists and analysts said the idea behind controlling who is allowed back in seems to be to secure Damascus’s vicinity by populating it with those whose support President Bashar al-Assad’s government can rely on fully.
Several Palestinians of Yarmouk told us they feel they are being punished by the government mainly because Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian movement, backed the opposition in the civil war instead of the regime.
The al-Assad regime supported Hamas over Yassir Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organisation since the 1980s and expected the group to defend the government in the conflict. Hamas’s leadership, however, sided with the rebels, partly because Palestinians, too, had had enough repression under the regime.
Ahmad Hosain, CEO of Action Group for Palestinians which is a UK-based monitor, said more was at play than the government’s dissatisfaction with Hamas’s policy. He said not just Yarmouk but properties in other Palestinian camps were being confiscated too.
“In the al-Husayniyah Palestinian refugee camp in the Damascus countryside, the Syrian regular army forces prevented many families from returning to the camp after regaining control over it, and informed them that all their property is at the disposal of the checkpoint,” said Hosain.
“In Khan Al-Shih camp, a number of homes were confiscated, whose owners worked as media, human rights, and relief activists,” he added.
However, he said, Palestinians were targeted just as other Syrians who stood up against an oppressive and corrupt regime.
“The criterion here was not because of their being Palestinians, but for other reasons related to the military geography of the area, opposition movements, and other causes,” Hosain added. “Therefore, we see the disparity in the damage inflicted on the camps between one region and another.”
Palestinians in Syria were granted nearly the same status as Syrian citizens under a policy that predates the emergence of the Baath party. Even though they maintained their Palestinian identity, over the years they became Syrian, too, and a part of the Syrian social fabric.
Many of those Palestinian-Syrians see themselves as dual citizens, of Syria, and of a future state of Palestine.
Um and Ab Rasha were forced to flee their camp in Deraa for Lebanon. Even though they long for their home, neighbourhood, and friends still inside Syria they say it is not safe for them to return.
“Before leaving Syria, we have seen the treatment of intelligence,” said Um Rasha from the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. “They are to be blamed for all the hardship Palestinian Syrians are experiencing today in Syria.”
“We are afraid of returning to Syria because many of our family members and relatives were detained by the Syrian army or the security forces,” added her husband.
Thousands of Palestinians were detained and tortured in the country’s infamous prison system along with many more Syrians. Ten years after the Syrian uprising began, they, too, fear persecution upon return. But for them, the trauma of being homeless perhaps runs deeper than even their Syrian contemporaries.
“I can’t return to Yarmouk in this lifetime,” said Um Ahmad. “I am going to die homeless.”