Middle East

Yarmouk blockade should go to ICC, Amnesty says

In this picture taken on Monday Feb. 24, 2014, and released by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), residents of the besieged Palestinian camp of Yarmouk stand in line to receive sandwiches distributed by UNRWA, in Damascus, Syria. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon urged Syrian government to authorize more humanitarian staff to work inside the country, devastated by its 3-year-old conflict. (AP Photo/UNRWA)

BEIRUT: The Syrian government’s siege of the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is a crime against humanity and should see the regime referred to the International Criminal Court, according to an Amnesty International report released Monday. Since July 2013, when the government prevented the entry of people, food and medical supplies into the area, at least 124 civilians have died directly as a result of starvation, the effects of which have been exacerbated by a lack of medical care.

A further 10 people were shot dead by government snipers, the report says, including two who were killed foraging for food. Another 51 people have died “from illnesses and injuries that required a degree of medical care no longer available in Yarmouk.”

Even before the camp’s complete closure last July, the entrance of many items was limited, and bringing in even small amounts of food could bring a death sentence.

In January 2013, the report says, Ghassan Shihabi was bringing in bread for his and other families when he was stopped at an army checkpoint outside the camp. Upon being given permission to enter, he was shot dead by a government sniper.

Yarmouk’s remaining residents – thought to number around 20,000 – have been exposed to “untold hardship and serious risk.”

“Rampant malnutrition has led to scores of reported deaths from starvation as well as widespread illness, with the sick, the elderly, young children and pregnant women at highest risk,” says the report, entitled “Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians.”

With the effects of the siege increasing every day and prices rising dramatically – a kilo of rice cost between $70 and $100 by late last year – people were forced to resort to “increasingly desperate measures.”

“For months, residents survived scouring the area for anything that might be edible, including cactus leaves, dandelion leaves and other plants,” which exposed some to government snipers.

The father of one teenage boy who died in such a way said to his body in the hospital, “You died for the sake of bringing hibiscus leaves for your brothers and sisters.”

One resident of the camp told Amnesty, “I eat anything that I can get my hands on. I eat on average one meal every 30 hours. Either we have to go to the small field areas overlooked by snipers, looking for herbs, or group together to buy a kilo of rice or lentils at 10,000 Syrian pounds and cook it, but we cannot afford to do this each day due to the cost.”

A common “meal” can consist of water mixed with spices, and some people have been drinking dog milk.

At least three men were reported to have been admitted to hospital when they became ill after consuming a waxy mixture of sugar and water that women use to remove body hair, the report says.

The intermittent delivery of food aid since January has had only a limited impact on the thousands of civilians who remain.

As for health care, “Medical facilities in particular have been badly hit, and medical personnel have suffered both through being targeted as well as through indiscriminate attacks and the collective punishment of the siege,” the report says, and many staff have left, fearing arrest.

The main hospital that continues to function, the Palestine Hospital, has only two remaining doctors, and nurses often carry out surgery “learning by experience and study.” Virtually no medical supplies remain, and, in addition, the facility has itself been bombed several times by regime forces, the report adds.

The report says the government’s treatment of Yarmouk constitutes both a war crime and a crime against humanity and recommends that Syria be referred to the ICC.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2014, on page 8.




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