WASHINGTON — The United Nations Relief and Works Agency distributed another 715 food parcels in the besieged Damascus neighborhood of Yarmouk on Sunday, its spokesman, Chris Gunness reports by email, bringing to 3,571 the number of parcels the agency has handed out since it was able to begin substantial aid distribution on Thursday.
But Gunness said in his email that the pace of distribution needs to be stepped up and he urged "the authorities on the ground" to make further improvements to allow more people to obtain the parcels. "While UNRWA appreciates that the authorities on the ground have significantly improved processing to enable us to distribute food parcels to an average of about 900 families each day, further improvements are required to reach many more families each day," he wrote.
Unstated is just what that processing entails or who is responsible for carrying it out. Two photos Gunness included with his email give a hint at the process. One, he wrote, shows a crowd waiting to be allowed to go to the distribution area. The other shows family members waiting for the return of whichever relative was allowed to go to the distribution area. Other photos give an idea of the size of the parcels, which come in large cardboard boxes with UNRWA emblazoned on the side. Each holds about 56 pounds of food stuffs, from lentils and sugar to cooking oil and luncheon meat. Gunness says each parcel is intended to feed five to eight people for 10 days.
There are 18,000 civilians still in Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp that grew to become a major district of Damascus that once was home to as many as 160,000 people, including Syrians. Most of its residents fled after rebels took up positions there beginning about a year ago. Now civilians who stayed behind are caught between the warring sides, which include the al Qaida affiliated Nusra Front and fighters from the Palestinian group Hamas on the inside and militias loyal to President Bashar Assad and Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command on the outside. No foodstuffs had entered the area since last June, and residents who wanted to leave were afraid to for fear the pro-Assad militias would shoot them. McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay laid out the situation in this horrifying story published two weeks ago.
The UNRWA distribution stops at sundown each day, Gunness wrote, and hundreds of people are still waiting when the distribution ends. Today, he wrote that in an interim report that 426 parcels had been distributed by 2:40 in the afternoon. The sun set in Damascus at 5:07 p.m., so in the two-and-a-half hours that remained after Gunness' first report, UNRWA was able to hand out nearly 300 parcels.
"There have been large crowds and long lines of people waiting for food which attest to the enormous humanitarian need and the desperation of a sizable number of civilians," Gunness wrote. "UNRWA again stresses that there is need for long-term support to Yarmouk and its civilians. To make any progress in addressing these needs, UNRWAs presence and humanitarian assistance work must be permitted to continue and expand over a period of months, not days."
"At the end of each day (once darkness or an incident forces withdrawal of the distribution team) hundreds of civilians, in a visible state of desperation, exhaustion and anguish, have to return to the camp, many of them with nothing," he wrote.
Yarmouk is one of perhaps as many as nine locations where sieges have left a substantial number of civilians without a reliable food supply. Providing food to one of those locations, the old city district of Homs, was a key topic at last week's Geneva 2 peace talks, but the government and the opposition could not agree on terms. The government preferred evacuating women and children from the district, while the opposition refused to draw up a list of men in the district and Western diplomats insisted that civilians had the right to receive assistance without having to leave their homes.