In the Yarmouk camp, where death is no longer of interest to anyone, 5,000 residents of the original 150,000 remain among the ruins, mostly old people, widows and children.
The searchlight which turns on its axis, shedding light in turn on different dark corners of the killing fields of Syria, has stopped for a moment of the murderous shooting range perpetrated by the regime on the district of eastern Ghouta. 300,000 besieged people live there. The wholesale suffering has evoked some hollow statements and brought about one UN resolution which led to a declaration of a 30-day ceasefire, but the shooting hasn’t really stopped. When one focal point draws world attention to it, other places remain in the dark, far from the public eye and media attention, which is replete ad nauseam with descriptions of this war, especially when large numbers dictate coverage.
This is how the Yarmouk refugee camp in the southern part of Damascus has been forgotten, after basking in the limelight two years ago. Only 5,000 residents remain, mainly the old, the widows and their children, living in ruins where 150,000 once lived. Two thirds of the camp is ruled by Islamic State, with the rest controlled by the Syrian Liberation Front (Jabhat Fateh al-Sham) which was formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra. The battle between these two organizations is taking place under heavy siege by the Syrian army, which isn’t managing to take over the camp. A Palestinian militia is active alongside the army but it is mainly occupied with defending residents. Food and medications are scarce, there is no fuel for heating and there are no services at all.
The London-based human rights watchdog Action Group for Palestinians in Syria is one of the few bodies that still shows an interest in the country’s Palestinian refugees, reporting on events in the camps. According to the site, 3,664 Palestinians have died so far in the civil war.
In the scope of Syria’s tragic statistics, the number may not make much of an impression; the total number of dead in the war evidently exceeds half a million. More chilling than the number are the personal stories collected on the organization’s website in a documentation project, “This Is My Story,” that began last year. This week story No. 33 was posted, that of Abd al-Salam, who was born in the village of Ein al-Tina, west of Safed, in what is now northern Israel.
Salam was exiled to Lebanon in 1948, joined the PLO and fought against Israel. In the wake of the 2006 Second Lebanon War, he fled Lebanon for an unnamed Arab state before returning to Lebanon, where he lived in the Chatila refugee camp. He married and went to Syria. As he recounts his experiences since the outbreak of the war in Syria, he recalls eye doctors in Lebanon, to which he fled from Syria, demanding more than $2,000 from him for treatments that were ineffective because he needed an eye operation that cost around $10,000. “Where would I get that much money?” he says. Salam decided to take his family and return to Syria. The journey lightened his wallet by an additional few hundred dollars, to bribe the Lebanese border officials, plus an additional payment for each of the three months that he waited for a visa in a third country. Every Syrian officer at the border also received a few dozen dollars to let him enter.
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From Syria, Salam decided to go to Turkey, but he soon discovered that each checkpoint was a “country of its one,” where a passage fee must be paid to the local militias. He and his family had to pass through 13 such checkpoints before reaching the one that the people of Hama called “the wickedest checkpoint.” Salam was hit on his neck, which was wrapped in a bandage as a result of a slipped disk. The officials searched his pockets and were mad when they failed to find anything they could take, not even a cellphone. “Why don’t you have a cellphone?,” they asked him. “Because I can’t read or write,” Salam answered. But he did have $2,500 sewn into his underwear, and in a thorough search the following day the soldiers found it. “The officer brought me a piece of paper with a photocopy of 500 dollars and told me to sign that they were found on me. I understood what he wanted, and signed.” The officer pocketed $2,000.
Salam completed his journey in a military police car, together with five Syrian soldiers who were under arrest on suspicion of desertion. Together with them, Salam was placed first in Baluni Prison, in Homs, before being transferred to a prison in Damascus. He was tortured in a number of ways, from beatings with a club to electric shocks. The torture went on for three months before he was released. With the help of an aunt who lived in Damascus, Salam managed to scrape together $700 to flee to Turkey. After navigating the checkpoints along the way, he tried a number of times to cross into Turkey but each time he was turned back. In the end, he crossed the border illegally and made it to Greece, staying there for nine months until reaching Germany, where he was reunited with his family.
At first glance, Salam’s story is no different from that of millions of other refugees from Syria. At least he and his family survived, and found asylum. But unlike the Syrian refugees, who have a homeland to return to one day, the Palestinian refugees are stateless. They will continue to be eternal refugees, even once they are able to return to Syria.