WASHINGTON — Monday was the 10th day in a row that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency has been kept from delivering food to the Yarmouk section of Damascus. Here's the significance of that: the supplies that the agency had been able to deliver every day to thousands of camp residents from Jan. 30 to Feb. 7 are now in all likelihood gone. And it's uncertain when the agency's crews will next be allowed to make another distribution.
Ask, and Christopher Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman who uses email daily to update what's taking place in Yarmouk, will say he remains hopeful that soon UNRWA will again be passing out the 56-pound boxes of flour, sugar, cooking oil and lunch meat that are intended to feed a family of five to eight people for 10 days. Why? Because Syrian authorities and the rebels -- he calls them "concerned parties" -- keep assuring UNRWA that the aid deliveries will be allowed to restart.
But UNRWA thought that would happen on Thursday, when Gunness messaged that the agency's crews arrived fully expecting to resume aid, but after taking up their stations at the "distribution point" had been asked to stand down while some details got worked out. By 3 p.m. and with the day's light waning, it was pretty clear no distribution would take place. None took place on Saturday. Or Sunday. Or today. You can feel the frustration grow with each of Gunness's missives. Today, he noted that the distribution team didn't bother to go to the Yarmouk entrance, knowing they wouldn't be allowed to do their work.
"There has been no change in the situation from yesterday," Gunness wrote. "As UNRWA was informed in the morning that the distribution will not take place today, the UNRWA team did not visit Yarmouk."
He'd written essentially the same on Sunday. Each day brings more disappointment. On previous days, even when the food distribution didn't take place, the UNRWA crews had shown up, hoping to somehow push past whatever standoff is keeping the distribution from taking place. On Friday, this is the way Gunness put it: "The UNRWA team was at Yarmouk today continuing the Agency's efforts to persuade the authorities and concerned parties to allow UNRWA immediately to resume the delivery of food, medicines and other humanitarian assistance. The humanitarian needs of Yarmouk's civilians remain enormous and UNRWA will continue to press all concerned to ensure that food deliveries are urgently resumed."
Yarmouk is a complicated case. As those following it know, the Damascus district began its existence as a refugee camp for Palestinians. Over the years, it became an urban neighborhood, home not just to Palestinians, but Syrians, and avoided violence in the early months of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad. Then toward the end of 2012, rebels began to infiltrate the district, led by the al Qaida affiliated Nusra Front. They were joined by fighters from Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group, and took control. The vast majority of people who lived there fled, both the violence and the strict form of Islam the rebels imposed, and the population, once 160,000, shrank to around 18,000.
Pro-Assad militias, joined by fighters from the secular Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, surrounded the camp and cut off transit in or out. McClatchy's Jonathan S. Landay last month captured the horror of the result in this story. And Gunness captured the benefits of the food deliveries in this column, which was distributed by the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
How long before Yarmouk slips back into starvation? Maybe not immediately. But as the "concerned parties" ask for time to put into effect whatever agreement made Gunness hopeful last week, he urges them to remember that the food now has run out. "Civilians in Yarmouk have already suffered greatly and should not have to endure further anguish. A resumption of UNRWAs humanitarian operations inside Yarmouk is a matter of the greatest urgency," Gunness wrote today.
And as has been shown before, feeding hungry civilians doesn't really affect the ability of the armed groups to continue their stalemate Syria has become.
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