Palestinian refugees caught in Syria's crossfire
BEIRUT AND DAMASCUS // Residents of the Damascus neighbourhood of Yarmouk have woken recently to the sound of shelling early in the morning. Other times in the past fortnight they have been jolted by sniper fire or the whirring of an attack helicopter overhead in the middle of the day.
The fighting is not constant, but they never know when their community and its surrounding neighbourhoods in the Syrian capital's south are going to be hit. Like other parts of Damascus and across Syria, the community has been rocked by recent the violence.
Their fears were realised late on Thursday, when mortars rained down on a crowded marketplace in Syria's largest Palestinian refugee camp, killing 21 people as regime forces and rebels clashed, activists said yesterday.
Residents of Yarmouk say they feel particularly vulnerable. Some feel abandoned in the chaos of the conflict, while others say they are suffering in a war in which they have no part.
Since the start of the revolt against President Bashar Al Assad 17 months ago, many of Syria's Palestinian refugee population of about 500,000 have stayed on the periphery of the conflict.
But as they increasingly suffer losses within their own communities and the fighting intensifies, Palestinians in Yarmouk and elsewhere are being dragged into the violence.
"More and more Palestinians are becoming actively involved in the uprising and a majority sympathise with the opposition against Assad," said a Syrian resident of Yarmouk. "There are Palestinians fighting with the rebels in Yarmouk, some have taken up weapons, they are angry with this regime, they have had enough," he said.
The densely populated camp, home to almost 150,000 Palestinians and tens of thousands of Syrians, is surrounded by areas where fighting has raged between rebel groups and Syrian security forces in the weeks since the armed uprising moved to Damascus.
"Yarmouk is in the centre of places under attack, like Yalda and Tadamon, so we also come under attack," said a Palestinian activist from Yarmouk who gave his name as Mohammad Haifawi.
He said yesterday's attack may been meant for a different area. "Maybe it's random and they wanted to target Tadamon [where there had been clashes reported]. I don't really know."
But, he was emphatic about who he believed was to blame: Syrian government forces.
Sana, the Syrian state news agency, reported yesterday that the mortars had been fired on Yarmouk camp, but blamed the attack on rebels.
Palestinian and Syrian camp residents have since taken to the streets to protest the attack on Yarmouk, Mr Haifawi said.
Activists and camp residents estimate 20,000 Syrians from surrounding neighbourhoods have fled into Yarmouk in recent weeks. Some have sought shelter in mosques and schools, others are staying with Palestinian and Syrian families in the camp.
"We are refugees now helping other refugees," said Mr Haifawi, 27, who is hosting two displaced families in his home. "People are trying to help each other in many ways. Yarmouk is not safe, but it is safer than other places."
Some in Yarmouk see the killing last month of soldiers from the Palestinian Liberation Army, a branch of the Syrian military, as a tipping point.
The bloodied bodies of more than a dozen Palestinian conscripts were found outside Aleppo, with Syrian state media blaming the deaths on "armed terrorist groups".
Opposition activists believe they were killed by forces loyal to the Al Assad regime after they tried to defect from the Syrian army.
In the days that followed, anti-government protests erupted in Yarmouk. Security forces responded by firing on demonstrators, reportedly killing at least five people and sparking further protests and more violence. Rebel fighters responded by moving into areas surrounding the camp, according to Louay Al Mokdad, a logistics coordinator for the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Days later the FSA launched operation "Damascus Volcano" bringing the war to the heart of the capital, and to the streets of Yarmouk.
"There were dozens of rebel fighters, we could see them in the streets quite openly," said a long-time Syrian resident of the camp. "Now, whenever a helicopter passes overhead, you can hear all the rebels shooting up at it."
Ad hoc defence committees have also sprung up in the camp, with the occupants of buildings throwing up barricades in entrance halls and standing guard with knives, metal bars and chains.
"Families want to keep their homes safe from the shabbiha [pro-government militia forces] and from the rebels," said a man who lives in a block of flats with its own protection committee.
"Our worry is that if the Free Syrian Army come to us, then the shabbiha and army will attack, the free army will leave and it will be us who suffer - we want to keep everyone away from our homes," he said.
Some in Yarmouk who have the means to leave are doing so, but most have no place to go.
Hundreds of families fled to safer suburbs of Damascus during recent clashes, staying with friends and family or setting up temporary homes in schools or municipal gardens. Many have now returned to the camp, but not all. Those who have gone home say it is because they cannot afford to stay away, not because they believe the conflict there has ended.
In once bustling markets, almost half of shops remain shuttered. Shortages of basic commodities, including food and fuel, have pushed up prices beyond the reach of many among the camp's working class residents.
The United Nations has expressed "grave concern" over the implications of the continuing violence for Syria's Palestinian refugees.
"The current situation in the Damascus neighbourhood of Yarmouk and in rural Damascus, home to both Syrian and Palestinian communities, is especially worrying," UNRWA, the UN's Palestine refugee agency, said in a statement.
Since the uprising began in March last year, Palestinian refugees in Syria have found themselves in a precarious situation as many tried to stay out of the divisive conflict.
Some argued they had much to lose by aligning themselves with either the rebels or the regime. While many of the Palestinian factions have distanced themselves from Damascus, they have not come out against the Syrian government.
"I think Bashar has to go because so many civilians have been killed, but we are afraid this will continue for a long time," said a 43-year-old Palestinian man from Yarmouk. "We don't want to be part of this war, we want to live in peace and for the Syrian people to live well."
But, as the crisis has worsened some Palestinians have said they can no longer remain on the sidelines. Many have taken to the streets and there have been reports of young Palestinian men joining rebel fighters.
"Some people say they don't need the FSA to enter Yarmouk because they say the army will come and make the camp into a conflict area," said Mr Haifawi, the Palestinian activist who has been involved with opposition groups since the beginning of the revolt.
Another Palestinian man who would only be identified as Abu Odai is an engineer by profession, but has spent the last few weeks in a very different role. He is among the Yarmouk residents who have formed committees to support both Syrians and Palestinians, volunteering at clinics and hospitals, helping people find shelter and basic necessities, and attempting to clean-up the mounds of rubbish piling up on the streets.
"It is a very dangerous situation and people are very angry," said Abu Odai, 47. "There is no money, no work now and life has stopped."
* Zoi Constantine reported from Beirut and Phil Sands from Damascus
Updated: August 4, 2012 04:00 AM