Crowds rush UNRWA food deliveries in Yarmouk as Nusra withdraws

McClatchy Washington BureauFebruary 19, 2014 

— The drama of Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus that had been occupied by al Qaida-linked rebel forces and sealed off by Assad-friendly militias and Palestinian groups, entered a new phase today -- perhaps a better one.

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency began food deliveries again inside the camp, after an 11-day hiatus, but the return of the UNRWA crews was chaotic. Only 280 food containers were distributed, according to UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunnes, because mobs of hungry camp residents stormed the distribution point. It took three hours for order to be restored, he wrote, after which there wasn't much time to keep distributing.

Food alone won't make Yarmouk residents happy. In Gunness' report on events, he described angry Yarmouk residents demanding to be able to come and go as they please, not trapped inside the neighborhood, beholden to UNRWA food deliveries -- as it used to be when Yarmouk was just another Damascus district, filled with 160,000 people, many of them Syrian. No word on what the prospect for that is.

But delivering food stuffs was a step forward. Conditions inside Yarmouk had become horrific, with at least three dozen deaths from starvation by mid January. People were living on grass and cactus, fearful of being shot by snipers if they strayed outside the camp and trapped by jihadi rebels with fundamentalist religious beliefs.

UNRWA had been allowed to deliver some food stuffs on Jan. 18, which marks the area's lowest point, and between Jan. 30 and Feb. 7, it managed to hand out more than 6,300 56-pound boxes of food, each intended to feed a family of five to eight for 10 days. On Feb. 7, a "steady stream," as Gunness described it, of Yarmouk residents sought to leave and that night fighting broke out. The next day, UNRWA was told it couldn't make its delivery that day, and that restriction continued for 11 days.

Key apparently to resuming food deliveries was the departure from Yarmouk of fighters from al Qaida's Syria affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. The Nusra Front, as the group is also known, had led the rebel takeover of Yarmouk more than a year ago. Gunness said he didn't know the details of the agreement, but yesterday the Iranian news agency Fars said that Nusra had left Yarmouk, citing a statement from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is one of the pro-Assad groups that were outside Yarmouk.

The news agency reported that "50 renowned political figures" were to enter the camp today to persuade anti-Assad Palestinians to abandon the positions that Nusra had held inside the camp.

Gunness said he didn't really know that kind of detail about the agreement. What he did know was that the distribution was able to take place only from about 11:05 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. before hungry civilians "surged toward" the distribution area. It was 4 p.m. before order was restored.

"In the course of the day, crowds of civilians inside Yarmouk made strong demands for open access and free movement, for a more dignified, more efficient food distribution process, and for distribution to be moved to a more conducive location inside Yarmouk," Gunness said. "Today, UNRWA staff heard passionate and vocal demands by Yarmouk’s civilians for substantial, sustained humanitarian access for Yarmouk, for the restoration of UNRWA services, and for Yarmouk to be rapidly opened for normal civilian life."

That would mark a turning point in the battle for Yarmouk -- and maybe a defeat for the anti-Assad rebellion, though the only certain winners on Wednesday were the 280 families who got new supplies of food.

Email: mseibel@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @markseibel

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