Some return to war-battered hub of Palestinian life in Syria


BEIRUT — Syria’s largest Palestinian camp was as soon as bustling with exercise: It was crowded with mini-buses and filled with outlets hawking falafel, shawarma and knafeh nabulsieh — a candy concoction of cheese and phyllo dough.

Children performed soccer and brandished plastic weapons till males with actual weapons got here in when Syria descended into civil warfare. Over the previous decade, combating devastated communities throughout the nation, together with the Yarmouk camp, on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus.

At present, Yarmouk’s streets are nonetheless piled with rubble. Scattered Palestinian flags fly from largely deserted homes, the one reminder that this was as soon as a significant political and cultural middle of the Palestinian refugee diaspora.

Two years in the past, Syrian authorities started permitting former Yarmouk residents who might show house possession and cross a safety verify to return again.

However to this point, few have returned. Many others have been deterred by concern they could possibly be arrested or conscripted by drive. Others now not have homes to return again to. Nonetheless, with the combating having subsided in a lot of Syria, some need to see what’s left of their houses.

Earlier this month, the federal government opened up Yarmouk for a uncommon go to by journalists to focus on its push for returnees. The event: the launch of a brand new group middle, constructed by a non-government group.

A kind of who’ve returned is Mohamed Youssef Jamil. Initially from the Palestinian village of Lubya, west of town of Tiberias in present-day Israel, he had lived in Yarmouk since 1960. He raised three sons within the camp, earlier than Syria’s warfare broke out.

The 80-year-old got here again a yr and a half in the past, with authorities approval to restore his broken home. Of the 30 or 40 households who used to dwell on his avenue, there at the moment are 4. Many buildings that weren’t leveled by bombs had been looted, stripped of home windows, electrical wiring — even taps.

“I’m staying right here to protect it from thieves,” he mentioned of his house.

Close by, the suitable half of Mohamed Taher’s home has collapsed, whereas he’s repairing the still-standing left half. “There isn’t a electrical energy,” the 55-year-old mentioned, although in some elements of the camp there’s water and the sewer system works.

Yarmouk was in-built 1957 as a Palestinian refugee camp however grew right into a vibrant suburb that additionally attracted working-class Syrians. Earlier than the 2011 rebellion turned civil warfare, some 1.2 million individuals lived in Yarmouk, together with 160,000 Palestinians, in keeping with the U.N. company for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA.

As of June, some 4,000 individuals returned to Yarmouk, UNRWA mentioned, whereas one other 8,000 households acquired permission to return over the summer time.

The returnees battle with a “lack of primary providers, restricted transportation, and largely destroyed public infrastructure,” UNRWA mentioned. Some dwell in homes with out doorways or home windows.

The U.N. company mentioned returns to Yarmouk elevated, partially, as a result of the camp supplied free housing. At a latest press convention, UNRWA chief Philippe Lazzarini mentioned an growing variety of Palestinian refugees in Syria are “mainly going again into rubble simply because they can not afford anymore to dwell the place they had been.”

Previously, Palestinian factions in Syria generally had an advanced relationship with Syrian authorities. Former Syrian President Hafez Assad and Palestinian Liberation Group chief Yasser Arafat had been bitter adversaries.

Nevertheless, Palestinian refugees lived in relative consolation in Syria, with better socioeconomic and civil rights than these in neighboring Lebanon.

Yarmouk’s Palestinian factions tried to stay impartial as Syria’s civil warfare broke out, however by late 2012, the camp was pulled into the battle and completely different factions took opposing sides within the warfare.

The militant group Hamas backed the Syrian the opposition whereas others, just like the In style Entrance for the Liberation of Palestine–Basic Command, fought on the Syrian authorities’s aspect.

In 2013, Yarmouk grew to become the goal of a devastating siege by authorities forces. In 2015, it was taken over by the extremist Islamic State group. A authorities offensive retook the camp in 2018, emptying it of remaining inhabitants.

Sari Hanafi, a professor of sociology on the American College of Beirut who grew up in Yarmouk, mentioned these returning are doing so due to “absolute necessity.”

“The others who don’t return — it’s as a result of it’s an unlivable place,” he mentioned.

A younger man from Yarmouk dwelling in a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon agrees. With Syrian President Bashar Assad’s authorities nonetheless firmly in place, he mentioned that if he went again, he “would all the time be dwelling in anxiousness and with out safety.”

“Somebody who returns to the camp, or to Syria on the whole, is now not considering, ‘How a lot freedom will I’ve?’ He’s considering, ‘I simply need a home to dwell in,’” he mentioned, talking on situation of anonymity, fearing for the protection of his kin again in Syria.

On the group middle’s opening, the governor of Damascus, Mohamed Tarek Kreishati, promised to clear the rubble and restore utilities and public transportation.

However there’s an extended option to go to persuade individuals to return, mentioned Mahmoud Zaghmout from the London-based Motion Group for Palestinians of Syria, aligned with the Syrian opposition.

Yarmouk lacks “hospitals, bakeries, fuel distribution facilities and primary shopper and meals objects,” Zaghmout mentioned.

There are those that hope Yarmouk will likely be restored to its previous glory, like Suheil Natour, a Lebanon-based researcher and member of the leftist Democratic Entrance for the Liberation of Palestine.

He pointed to Lebanon’s Palestinian refugee camp Ein el-Hilweh, which was razed by Israeli forces in 1982 and later rebuilt. Yarmouk can be “in the future a really flourishing image of revival of the Palestinian refugees,” he mentioned.

Others are skeptical. Samih Mahmoud, 24, who grew up in Yarmouk however now lives in Lebanon, mentioned not a lot stays of the place he remembered.

He mentioned he’s not connected to the buildings and streets of Yarmouk. “I’m connected to the individuals, to the meals, to the ambiance of the camp,” he mentioned. “And all of that’s gone.”

Related Press author Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, and Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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