WASHINGTON — Five days after Syrian authorities halted what apparently had been a successful 10 days of food distribution in Damascus' Yarmouk refugee camp, one of Syria's besieged areas, hopeful news arrived today from Christopher Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency: UNRWA's crews were allowed once again into the area to set up for distribution.
Not that distribution actually took place. While the UNRWA team was in position at the distribution point shortly after 10:15 a.m., UNRWA "was requested by parties to the agreement to delay distribution until critical negotiations could be completed." By 3:10 p.m., it was obvious to the UNRWA crew that there would be no food distribution and they decamped. But Gunness, in his on-the-record, for-attribution email, was upbeat -- uncommonly so given the disappointment he's expressed in recent days at the pause in food distribution. As he noted last week, the halt came just as the first recipients of food parcels would have been running low on supplies and in need of new stocks.
Today, he reported that "Syrian authorities indicated that there was a likelihood that UNRWA's food distribution would be permitted to recommence this morning." He said the "atmosphere remained positive and peaceful throughout the day." He said "UNRWA remains encouraged by the agreement between parties to the conflict in Yarmouk and has received assurances from Syrian authorities that distributions of urgently needed humanitarian assistance will resume in the coming days."
"The Agency encourages all parties to complete negotiations at the earliest opportunity and permit full humanitarian access to the civilian population remaining in Yarmouk," he said.
Obviously, something is in the offing, and Gunness hopes it will let UNRWA have unfettered and consistent access to Yarmouk, which began its existence as a camp for Palestinian refugees (hence, UNRWA's involvement) but grew into an urban neighborhood that once was home to 160,000 people, including Syrians. About 18,000 civilians were thought to remain as of last month.
What exactly is afoot Gunness won't say. And who can blame him, if he's hopeful all will be resolved to the benefit of the residents of Yarmouk? Until a very few days ago, people in Yarmouk had been surviving on boiled grass and cactus, as this story from mid January by McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay attests. The paused food deliveries had big impact, Gunness wrote in this piece distributed earlier this week by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
There have been hints in recent days of a coming deal in the camp, which is occupied by rebels from al Qaida's Nusra Front and the Islamist Palestinian group Hamas and surrounded by militias loyal to President Bashar Assad, including fighters from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Just before the aid mission was paused, Gunness noted in one of his daily updates that there had been a "steady stream" of people seeking evacuation from the camp, something UNRWA witnessed but was not a part of. Then on Wednesday, Gunness used an odd word, "personnel," in his description of what was taking place: "UNRWA is closely monitoring reports that the evacuation of personnel from Yarmouk is ongoing following a reported deal that was agreed by various groups," he wrote in that diplomatic style that almost but not quite divulges information. What various groups? Are civilians now "personnel?"
"We share the hopes of the civilians there that an end to the fighting will bring peace and herald a time of safe, substantial and continuous humanitarian access," he wrote in his on-the-record email Wednesday. "UNRWA hopes that any evacuations and any deal reached will be durable and will immediately ease living conditions in Yarmouk."
Between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, UNRWA distributed about 6,400 food parcels, each with 56 pounds of food stuffs meant to feed a family of five to eight people for 10 days. By how much Yarmouk's population has declined in recent days is not known, at least by UNRWA. In photos UNRWA distributed, the place looks uninhabitable, its buildings in shreds after a year of fighting.
If a deal really is struck that "brings peace" and "continuous humanitarian access" to Yarmouk, it could serve as a template for the other areas where siege conditions have cut large civilian populations off from regular supplies of food and water -- the U.N. estimates about 250,000 people are in such straits.
The situation in the old city district of Homs has over-shadowed Yarmouk, though I'm not really sure why -- it involves far fewer people, perhaps 2,500, of whom at least half have now been evacuated. But that, too, may be moving to some accommodation. Word out of Geneva today is that the tenuous cease-fire there that has allowed the evacuation of civilians and the delivery of food has been extended for another three days.
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