The overlooked story of Syria’s Yarmouk death camp

Image by Bernabeu

Image by Jordi Bernabeu

A brave 12-year-old girl named Zeynab Daghastani recently attempted to escape the grim living conditions of a besieged Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. Starving and bone-tired, she did not make it very far before being shot and killed by an ISIS sniper. Welcome to Yarmouk.

On April 1st, a group of ISIS’s mask-wearing jihadists swept through the Yarmouk refugee camp. ISIS brutally subjugated the Yarmouk residents and effectively enveloped them in an oppressive environment described by Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon as “the deepest circle of hell.”

Even before ISIS transformed Yarmouk into an iron-fisted prison camp where shootings are widespread and beheadings are recurrent, the refugee camp was already a theatre of human despair. Located right on the outskirts of the Syrian capital of Damascus, Yarmouk has long been victimized by bombing campaigns and subjected to human rights violations by Assad forces amid the raging civil war in Syria.

In his recent piece for The Guardian, Mehdi Hasan described the nearly impossible living conditions in Yarmouk:

Water and electricity were cut off long ago, and of the 160,000 Palestinian refugees who once lived in the camp only 18,000 now remain. The Syrian regime has, according to Amnesty International, been “committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon,” forcing residents to “resort to eating cats and dogs.”

A resident of Yarmouk equated life there with turning off all your electricity, water and heat while only eating once a day in the dark.  This is all in addition to the unrelenting violence that comes with the inconvenience of being stuck between a genocidal army of terrorists and a murderous regime.

While ISIS is slaughtering people in the streets, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of contacts in Syria, reported to The New York Times that the Assad regime had dropped 36 barrel bombs on the camp between April 5 and 10. Scores of people were killed. “The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars,” said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a political activist living inside the camp.

Most of the world is well-aware of the upheaval that has permeated Syria, but these descriptions from Yarmouk’s residents powerfully filter the situation through intimate perspectives that illuminate a disturbing reality: it is innocent people who bear the brunt of this senseless conflict.

The plight of these Palestinian refugees should matter to us all; they are in desperate need of help. There seems to be a distinct outrage and vast media coverage when Americans are executed by ISIS, and widespread condemnation when Palestinians are persecuted by Israelis. However, there is an unsettling  silence while throats are being slit and a malnourished, dehydrated population is withering away in the bomb-blackened streets of Yarmouk. This unceasing humanitarian catastrophe emanating from Syria is hugely exacerbated by such pervasive apathy.

This apathy is demonstrated by the ineffectiveness of the UN’s recent appeal for emergency funds to ease the suffering in Yarmouk. According to Chris Gunness, Spokesman for the UNRWA, they are requesting $415 million to provide emergency humanitarian aid for refugees in Syria. Unfortunately, the funds are nearly empty, and this will likely prevent critical assistance being given to the refugees.

It is interesting how the United States did not hesitate to provide support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, which is likely to sink that country deeper into chaos, but has not found a way to sufficiently help those attempting to mitigate the effects of a humanitarian cataclysm in Syria. Furthermore, the rest of the Saudi-led coalition, and those supporting it – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Somalia – should be ashamed for joining forces in the military action against the Houthis in Yemen, but failing to display the same urgency when it comes to aiding their suffering neighbors in Syria.

The vast majority of Yarmouk’s refugees are people who believe deep in their hearts that there is more in the world for them to experience outside the imposed boundaries of their conflict-ridden, impoverished environment. They are not wrong, but, sadly, those who attempt to transcend these walls of oppression, like 12-year-old Zeynab Daghastani, are often met with a similar fate: a bomb blast, bullet to the head or knife to the throat.

At the very least, we owe it to the people of Yarmouk to share their story and show them that they are not invisible. Hopefully, an increase in awareness will galvanize the international community into action.

Image courtesy of Jordi Bernabeu

Robert Souza

About Robert Souza

Robert recently received his master's degree in International Relations from Suffolk University in Boston. At Suffolk he was a member of the Political Science Association and the Students for Justice in Palestine Association. He can be reached at

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