My Missing Family in Syria: Naming and Shaming in Yarmouk
04 May 2015
By Ramzy Baroud
Members of my family in Syria's Yarmouk went missing many months ago. We have
no idea who is dead and who is alive. Unlike my other uncle and his children
in Libya, who fled the NATO war and turned up alive but hiding in some desert
a few months later, my uncle's family in Syria disappeared completely as if
ingested by a black hole, to a whole different dimension.
I chose the ''black hole'' analogy, as opposed to the one used by UN
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon – ''the deepest circle of hell'' – which he
recently uttered in reference to the plight of Palestinians in Yarmouk
following the advances made by the notorious Islamic State (IS) militias in
early April. If there is any justice in the hereafter, no Palestinian refugee
– even those who failed to pray five times a day or go to church every Sunday
– deserves to be in any ''circle of hell'', deep or shallow. The suffering
they have endured in this world since the founding of Israel atop their towns
and villages in Palestine some 66 years ago is enough to redeem their
collective sins, past and present.
For now, however, justice remains elusive. The refugees of Yarmouk – whose
population once exceeded 250,000, dwindling throughout the Syrian civil war
to 18,000 – is a microcosm of the story of a whole nation, whose perpetual
pain shames us all, none excluded.
Palestinian refugees (some displaced several times) who escaped the Syrian
war to Lebanon, Jordan or are displaced within Syria itself, are experiencing
the cruel reality under the harsh and inhospitable terrains of war and Arab
regimes. Many of those who remained in Yarmouk were torn to shreds by the
barrel bombs of the Syrian army, or victimised – and now beheaded – by the
malicious, violent groupings that control the camp, including the al-Nusra
Front, and as of late, IS.
Those who have somehow managed to escape bodily injury are starving. The
starvation in Yarmouk is also the responsibility of all parties involved, and
the ''inhumane conditions'' under which they subsist – especially since
December 2012 – is a badge of shame on the forehead of the international
community in general, and the Arab League in particular.
These are some of the culprits in the suffering of Yarmouk:
Israel bears direct responsibility in the plight of the refugees in Yarmouk,
as they do the five million other refugees across the Middle East. The
refugees of Yarmouk are mostly the descendants of Palestinian refugees from
historic Palestine, especially the northern towns, including Safad, which is
now inside Israel. The camp was established in 1957, nearly a decade after
the Nakba – the ''Catastrophe'' of 1948, which saw the expulsion of nearly a
million refugees from Palestine. It was meant to be a temporary shelter, but
it became a permanent home. Its residents never abandoned their right of
return to Palestine, a right enshrined in UN resolution 194.
Israel knows that the memory of the refugees is its greatest enemy, so when
the Palestinian leadership requested that Israel allow the Yarmouk refugees
to move to the West Bank, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a
condition: that they renounce their right of return. Palestinians refused.
The refugees would have refused. History has shown that Palestinians would
endure untold suffering and not abandon their rights in Palestine. The fact
that Netanyahu would place such a condition is not just a testimony to
Israel's fear of Palestinian memory, but the political opportunism and sheer
ruthlessness of the Israeli government.
The Palestinian Authority (PA)
The PA was established in 1994 based on a clear charter where a small group
of Palestinians ''returned'' to the occupied territories, set up a few
institutions and siphoned billions of dollars in international aid in
exchange for abandoning the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and
ceding any claim on real Palestinian sovereignty and nationhood. The
Palestinian nation became whatever Palestine's political elite wished it to
be. The new ''Palestine'' had no definable boundaries, excluded the diaspora
community and millions of refugees, saw Palestinians in Israel as an internal
Israeli matter, split the West Bank and Gaza, and had no patience for any
Not only had it completely abandoned the refugees, save a few passing
references, the PA left Lebanon's half-million refugees to fend for
themselves, locked in refugee camps that were not allowed to grow or develop,
with no voice or political representation.
When the civil war in Syria began to quickly engulf the refugees, and
although such a reality was to be expected, President Mahmoud Abbas's
authority did so little, as if the matter was of no importance or had no
bearing on the Palestinian people as a whole. True, Abbas made a few
statements calling on Syrians to spare the refugees from what was essentially
a Syrian struggle, but not much more. When IS took over the camp, Abbas
dispatched his labour minister, Ahmad Majdalani, to Syria. The latter made a
statement that the factions and the Syrian regime would unite against IS –
which, if true, is likely to ensure the demise of hundreds more.
If Abbas had invested 10 percent of the energy he spent on his
''government's'' media battle against Hamas or a tiny share of his investment
in the frivolous ''peace process'', he could have at least garnered the
needed international attention and backing to treat the plight of Palestinian
refugees in Syria's Yarmouk with a degree of urgency. Instead, they were left
to die alone, as the PA remained safe in its Ramallah bubble, unhindered by
the cries of orphans, widows and bleeding men.
The Syrian Regime
When rebels seized Yarmouk in December 2012, President Bashar al-Assad's
forces shelled the camp without mercy while Syrian media never ceased to
speak about liberating Jerusalem. The contradictions between words and deeds
when it comes to Palestine is an Arab syndrome that has afflicted every
single Arab government and ruler since Palestine became the ''Palestine
question'' and the Palestinians became the ''refugee problem''.
Syria is no exception, but Assad, like his father Hafez before him, is
particularly savvy in utilising Palestine as a rallying cry aimed solely at
legitimising his regime while posing as a revolutionary force fighting
colonialism and imperialism. Palestinians will never forget the siege and
massacre of Tel al-Zaatar (where Palestinian refugees in Lebanon were
besieged, butchered but also starved as a result of a siege and massacre
carried out by right-wing Lebanese militias and the Syrian army in 1976), as
they will not forget or forgive what is taking place in Yarmouk today.
The Syrian army imposed a siege on Yarmouk over two years ago to strangle the
rebels. Many of the camp's homes were turned to rubble because of Assad's
barrel bombs, shells and airstrikes. Trapped within a hermetic siege and
infighting militias, suffering from the lack of food, having no access to
electricity or running water or medical supplies, the refugees perished
slowly and painfully. Meanwhile, Syrian television is still hatching plans to
The so-called Free Syria Army (FSA) should have never entered Yarmouk, no
matter how desperate they were for an advantage in their war against Assad.
It was criminally irresponsible considering the fact that, unlike Syrian
refugees, Palestinians had nowhere to go and no one to turn to. The FSA
invited the wrath of the regime, and couldn't even control the camp, which
fell into the hands of various militias that are plotting and bargaining
amongst each other to defeat their enemies, who could possibly become their
allies in their next pathetic street battles for control over the camp.
The access that IS gained in Yarmouk was reportedly facilitated by the al-Nusra
Front, which is an enemy of IS in all places but Yarmouk. Nusra is hoping to
use IS to defeat the mostly local resistance in the camp, arranged by Aknaf
Beit al-Maqdis, before handing the reins of the besieged camp back to the al-Qaeda
affiliated group. And while criminal gangs are politicking and bartering,
Palestinian refugees are dying in droves.
The UN and Arab League
Cries for help have been echoing from Yarmouk for years, and yet none have
been heeded. Recently, the UN Security Council decided to hold a meeting and
discuss the situation there as if the matter was not a top priority years
ago. Grandstanding and concerned press statements aside, the UN has largely
abandoned the refugees. The budget for UNRWA, which looks after the nearly 60
Palestinian refugee camps across Palestine and the Middle East, has shrunk so
significantly, the agency often finds itself on the verge of bankruptcy.
The UN refugee agency, better funded and equipped to deal with crises, does
little for the Palestinian refugees in Syria. Promises of funds for UNRWA,
which frankly could have done much better to raise awareness and confront the
international community over their disregard for the refugees, are rarely
The Arab League is even more responsible. The League was largely established
to unite Arab efforts to respond to the crisis in Palestine, and was supposed
to be a stalwart defender of Palestinians and their rights. But the Arabs too
have disowned Palestinians as they are intently focused on conflicts of more
strategic interests – setting up an Arab army with clear sectarian intentions
and aimed largely at settling scores.
Many of Us
The Syrian conflict has introduced great polarisation within a community that
once seemed united for Palestinian rights. Those who took the side of the
Syrian regime wouldn't concede for a moment that the Syrian government could
have done more to lessen the suffering in the camp. Those who are anti-Assad
insist that the entire evil deed is the doing of him and his allies.
Not only does such polarisation lead to irrational conclusions as it selects
particular pieces of evidence and ignores others. It is also
counterproductive. This useless fight reflects a disappointing fact that many
who consider themselves ''pro-Palestinians'' are driven by groupthink and
slogans, not human rights; self-serving ideologies, not the well-being of the
refugees; stubborn politics, not justice in its purest forms.
Those people, too, are responsible for wasting time, confusing the discussion
and wasting energies that could have been used to create a well-organised
international campaign to raise awareness, funds and practical mechanisms of
support to help Yarmouk in particular, and Palestinians refugees in Syria in
It behoves us all to take a moment to hang our heads in silence, but also
shame, over what has befallen Yarmouk, as we stood, watching, bickering and
But we ought to remember that there are still 18,000 trapped in Yarmouk and
organise on their behalf so that, even if it is untimely, we need do
- Ramzy Baroud – www.ramzybaroud.net – is an internationally-syndicated
columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books and the founder of
PalestineChronicle.com. He is currently completing his PhD studies at the
University of Exeter. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter:
Gaza's Untold Story (Pluto Press, London).