WASHINGTON — Two weeks ago, McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay wrote an incredible story about the siege of Yarmouk, an area of Damascus that began as a Palestinian refugee camp, but grew into an urban neighborhood that once housed as many as 160,000 people, Palestinians and Syrians alike (you can read his report here).
For many months, as Landay reported, the area had been largely spared the combat of Syria's intensifying civil war but toward the end of 2012, rebel forces swept in and thousands of Yarmouk residents fled (here's a report from then). Landay discovered that the battle wasn't just among Syrians, but had Palestinian tones too, with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on the pro-Assad side and Hamas on the anti-Assad side (ironically enough, both are U.S.-designated terrorist groups, as is the Nusra Front, which led the rebel push into Yarmouk).
By last month, the number of civilians still in Yarmouk had dwindled to an estimated 18,000. Many were unhappy with the rebel side, Landay found, but they couldn't leave for fear of being shot by the pro-government forces arrayed outside the area.
Friday came the first good news in that siege in a long time. The U.N. Relief and Works Agency finally had been able to deliver a significant amount of food in the district -- 1,026 parcels on Thursday and 980 parcels on Friday. That's food enough, according to UNRWA stats, to feed perhaps as many as 16,048 people for 10 days.
After the breakdown in Geneva over aid shipments to Homs, the Yarmouk deliveries were a surprise. UNRWA hopes it will be allowed to continue the deliveries.
Here's what UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness had to say on the subject in an email distributed Friday:
"Against a background of profound civilian suffering, UNRWA staff carried out another full day of food aid distributions in Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, handing out 980 food parcels. This follows the distribution of 1,026 food parcels yesterday. Since we were able to enter the camp on 18th January, we have distributed a total of 2,144 food parcels. This achievement needs to be put into perspective, given that one UNRWA food parcel will feed a family of between 5 and 8 people for just 10 days.
"UNRWA appreciates that the support of the Government of Syria in authorizing and facilitating this second full day of accelerated food distributions. The Agency recognizes the efforts and cooperation of GAPAR, its state counterpart, of the PLO and Palestinian leadership and the Palestinian charities that supported the distribution today.
"UNRWA is encouraged that an increased number of Palestinian civilians have received humanitarian assistance. These distributions demonstrate that the extraordinary suffering in Yarmouk and other closed areas of Syria can be addressed if all parties to the conflict fulfill their obligations to protect civilians.
"If the support of the authorities is maintained, UNRWA stands ready to immediately provide food for the entire Palestinian civilian population of Yarmouk, estimated at 18,000 people. We also have the potential capacity to distribute to non Palestinians. As each food parcel contains food for an average family for only ten days, it is imperative that continuous access to Yarmouk is authorized and supported, so that UNRWA can alleviate the deep and prolonged suffering caused by lack of food in Yarmouk.
"The large crowds of desperate people waiting to receive food parcels attest to the massive needs that have yet to be met. UNRWA has received assurances that Syrian authorities will continue to facilitate and support the delivery of assistance inside Yarmouk. Given todays events, UNRWA trusts that these assurances will continue to be translated into practical support not only for food distribution, but also for sustained, substantial, humanitarian access to Yarmouk and its civilian residents."