BEIRUT, Lebanon — Bombs and shells from all sides continue to rain down on Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus, as residents say the so-called Islamic States is taking ever-greater control. The jihadist assault that started April 1 has left residents trapped amid the rubble without medical aid or food while street fighting and heavy shelling by ISIS has overwhelmed Palestinian and Free Syrian Army forces trying to protect the camp. And to make matters works, the Syrian regime has been dropping barrel bombs and intensifying its own artillery barrages, raising fears it will invade with ground forces.
“It’s an absolute horror and I’m terrified,” says 27-year-old Tarek over Skype from near ISIS’s front lines. He is a longtime camp resident who became an activist in 2011 with the anti-regime protest movement. A human-rights organization put The Daily Beast in contact with him and he asked to be quoted only by a pseudonym for obvious security reasons.
Tarek worries that a regime ground invasion could trigger wide-scale massacres committed by the troops of President Bashar al Assad along with jihadist reprisal killings. He describes a situation of chaos in a camp—really a densely populated urban neighborhood—that has been increasingly crippled by the regime’s siege and bombardment since Free Syrian Army forces and Palestinian rebels rose up in December 2012.
“The streets are abandoned and filled with rubble as people hide in their homes,” Tarek says. Many residents have run out of food and water. There are desperate scenes as some of those come out to scour the area under sniper fire and shelling and look for wells.
According to Salim Salameh from the Palestinian League for Human Rights/Syria, many people have been without food for several days and are mixing water with spices to ease their hunger. Salameh, now based in Sweden and relying on a network of on-the-ground contacts, says the ongoing fighting has made it too difficult to assess accurately civilian casualties. Activists on the ground have counted dozens of dead and wounded since fighting escalated two weeks ago, but when there is a chance to dig through the rubble Salameh expects the numbers to go much higher.
Under these extreme conditions, Yarmouk residents have shown extraordinary resourcefulness. Syria’s largest Palestinian refugee camp has been without power since the jihadists invaded. In response, says Tarek, people melt plastic to make a crude fuel for the few accessible generators. He says residents are venturing into the war-torn streets to reconnect the downed Internet and phone lines so they can maintain basic communication with the outside world.
There is virtually no escape for the estimated 14,000 to 16,000 residents still trapped in neighborhoods where there were 112,000 before the war. Wesam Sabaaneh says his local NGO, Jafra, which has provided food supplies and tried to maintain basic camp infrastructure since the beginning of war, has stopped operating since ISIS invaded. One of Jafra’s volunteers was killed in street clashes and Sabaaneh says his organization’s offices in the camp were raided by ISIS.
Jafra still attempts to provide food packages in the neighboring community of Yalda, which is under siege by the regime, but Sabaaneh says the streets are too dangerous for many Yarmouk residents to reach them. Assad’s forces are still largely preventing escape from the besieged areas.
Aboud, a Jafra volunteer in Yarmouk who The Daily Beast was connected to through the NGO, also asks his real name not be used. He has been making the treacherous journey under sniper fire and shelling to distribute food. Starting from behind ISIS battle lines, he sprints across no-man’s land to reach the distribution point in Yalda.
Even the hospitals are now targets. Both Tarek and Aboud describe devastating destruction last week when the government dropped barrel bombs on the Palestine Hospital, the only medical facility within reach of besieged residents.
“Now we can only apply basic first aid,” says Tarek. Head wounds and broken bones are simply wrapped in bandages and left.
“The situation is growing more dire and catastrophic by the minute,” says Christopher Gunness, spokesperson for the United Nations Relief and Works Organization for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). He says his organization has been prevented from entering the camp since March 28. On Monday UNRWA was able to distribute much-needed aid to 500 refugees and residents in Yalda. The U.N. group was originally established to provide social services and care for the families of Palestinians forced to flee during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
For many years, Yarmouk served as the capital of Hamas in exile, which had strong backing from the Syrian regime until it sided with the rebels in the civil war. Now those days seems like distant history.
“Everyone acting in the Syrian conflict is sponsored by somebody, and we are calling on all those with power and influence to step in,” says Gunness. Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and Iran, and global powers like the U.S. and Russia, are all players in the Syrian war.
People under ISIS rule in the camp tell of the brutality when the fighters of the would-be caliphate invaded Yarmouk. Aboud says terror ripped through the camp when jihadists beheaded three Palestinian fighters and issued chilling calls over the loudspeakers in the minarets demanding that the camp surrender.
“We found a head of someone lying in the street,” says Aboud, his voice a little shaky.
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, jihadist forces have taken control of 90 percent of Yarmouk.
Salameh and residents on the ground, as well, accuse the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front of initially giving ISIS access to Yarmouk. They also say the mass atrocities carried out in other areas of the self-proclaimed Islamic State—hundreds and thousands massacred at a time—have yet to happen in Yarmouk because the jihadists have been focused on fighting at the front.
But since a failed counterattack by Palestinian forces from the Hamas-affiliated Aknaf Beit al Maqdis militia and FSA on Saturday, Salameh has received reports that ISIS has been consolidating its control. Since then, his contacts on the ground tell him, clashes with Palestinian and FSA fighters have drastically decreased.
If the trail of carnage in other parts of Syria and Iraq overrun by the Islamic State is any indication, this could just be the beginning.
For those who have made it out of Yarmouk over the last two years, and come to Lebanon, there is a feeling of escaping hell only to land in purgatory. Inside Beirut’s Shatila refugee camp, Nidal, as he calls himself, waits with nowhere to go. He declines to use his real name because he has not had any legal status in Lebanon since he arrived on a transit visa in February 2014.
It feels like time stops as we walk down a narrow side street and through Shatila’s gate. The towering walls of congested apartment buildings line the narrow streets of this impoverished ghetto, pockmarked with bullet holes from Lebanon's own civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990. “Sabra and Shatila” were buzzwords for atrocity in the 1980s after the horrific massacre was carried out there during the Israeli occupation of Beirut in 1982 by some of Israel’s Christian allies.
Today, posters of martyrs and leaders of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) as well as Hamas plaster cellphone kiosks and darkened apartment stairwells alike. It’s as if we have stepped out of Beirut and into a slice of Palestine that is replicated in camps across the West Bank, Gaza, and Jordan.
As a journalist in Syria, Nidal wrote about the situation of the Palestinian diaspora and became a critic of Assad’s regime. For this he was arrested by government forces in Damascus in December 2013 and spent two and a half months being interrogated and tortured before he was released and fled the country.
Outlining a square of about two feet by two feet on the floor, Nidal illustrates the space he was confined to in his overcrowded cell. He tells of vicious beating and the constant sound of other prisoners being brutally tortured. It’s an experience that has aged his face beyond his 30 years. He laughs to avoid crying and every time he does so, his skinny body trembles slightly. But what haunts him most, he says, are the images of the destroyed remains of civilians lying in the streets after clashes with regime forces first began in Yarmouk.
These days, the most difficult thing for him is talking on the phone to friends still trapped inside. “I get really upset when I speak with them,” says Nidal, nervously chuckling again. He has plenty of blame to go around as he talks about those responsible for the situation of Yarmouk’s residents. Naturally he starts with Israel for creating the unresolved Palestinian refugee problem, but he has ample rage for all the countries and armed forces involved in ripping Syria apart.
He doesn’t see himself ever going back, and as a realist about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, doesn’t see himself returning to the land of his grandparents anytime soon. Instead the only future he sees as possible is an endless day-to-day struggle in a country where he is unwanted.
“Many Lebanese people hate Palestinians and hate Syrians,” he says. “For them, I’m the worst thing they can imagine.”