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After a ‘second Nakba,’ Palestinians return to Syria’s Yarmouk

By Kobi Guillory

Abeer Ali Naif’s rebuilt home in Yarmouk camp, Damascus.

Damascus, Syria – Enormous piles of rubble and trash line the streets of the Yarmouk refugee camp in south-central Damascus in late May, 2021. Most structures bear reminders of the war: bullet holes, sandbags, the fading graffiti of various factions. Some buildings have collapsed entirely. Stray cats and dogs roam the eerie, quiet streets.

Just off of the main Yarmouk Street, however, signs of life begin to appear. Behind a destroyed pharmacy, plastic chairs are arranged outside the home of Abeer Ali Naif and her family. A small fluorescent light illuminates the entryway. Clothes hang out to dry from the restored balcony, adorned with decorative wrought iron. Potted plants climb the patched stucco walls from a section of narrow street that stands out for its lack of debris.

Naif has returned to Yarmouk, but she is from Palestine. Her family was ethnically cleansed by Zionists during the Nakba of 1948, after which they found their way to the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria.

Calling it a “camp” is a bit of a misnomer. Soon after it was established in 1948, modern apartment blocks, schools, hospitals, businesses and banks were established. Yarmouk quickly grew into a thriving neighborhood of Damascus, home to over 160,000 Palestinians and at least that many Syrians – many themselves displaced after the Zionist takeover of Syria’s Golan Heights in 1967.

“The conditions in Palestinian refugee camps in Syria were much better than in other countries,” explains Amal Wahdan, a Ramallah-based activist with the One Democratic State In Palestine campaign who accompanied Fight Back! to visit Yarmouk. Wahdan spent time in Yarmouk herself, after being deported from the West Bank in 1990 during the First Intifada. She later was allowed to reenter, though not to her family’s original home.

“Palestinians in Syria are considered equal to Syrians,” she says. “They get free education and free healthcare, can work at any job based on their qualifications, and own their own businesses and homes.” Contrast that to neighboring Lebanon, where Palestinians are only allowed to work in certain jobs, and only for companies owned by Lebanese nationals.

“Yarmouk was called the capital of the Palestinian diaspora, politically and economically,” she says.

Outside her home, Naif agrees. “We were living in peace,” she says. “Until the Saudis, the U.S., Turkey and Qatar sent terrorists.”

The fall of Yarmouk

The destruction of Yarmouk unfolded gradually. As the war broke out across Syria, most Palestinian factions in the camp pledged their neutrality. But in mid-2012, a wave of assassinations targeted the leftist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command group, which was seen as close to the Syrian government. Even then, the Syrian army stayed out of the situation, out of respect for the camp’s traditional Palestinian autonomy.

When the infighting caused the camp’s security to deteriorate, however, outside groups with the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra and the U.S.-backed so-called ‘Free Syrian Army’ flooded into the camp to take advantage of its proximity to their real target: state institutions in central Damascus. By late 2012, the groups were firing mortars into the city center and using the camp’s dense apartment buildings as a staging ground for further incursions.

The government had little choice but to send the army to the camp’s entrances to contain the armed groups, while supporting the Palestinian factions that fought back. The worsening violence necessitated the evacuation of Yarmouk’s civilians.

In December 2012, the vast majority of Palestinian and Syrian residents left Yarmouk. These hundreds of thousands of civilians became refugees from a refugee camp, heading for other areas of Syria, neighboring countries and further abroad.

“For the Palestinians, what happened in Yarmouk is considered a second Nakba, to be forced to leave their livelihoods and property, and move somewhere else,” says Wahdan. “This was a total catastrophe.”

Siege and starvation

For a variety of reasons, about 20,000 civilians chose to remain in the camp. The government and its Palestinian allies faced the gut-wrenching dilemma of how to liberate the camp without hurting the civilian population.

Thus began the infamous siege of Yarmouk. At times it was unimaginably ugly. While the Syrian government worked with the Palestine Liberation Organization and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency to get supplies to civilians, they didn’t always arrive. In some cases, the anti-government militias took the supplies for themselves; in others, foreign terrorists were seen shooting at civilians who tried to flee. The West accused the Syrian government of trying to starve the entire camp into surrender.

Palestinian factions on both sides agreed the situation was a humanitarian disaster. Throughout 2013 and 2014, negotiations were underway to evacuate all armed groups from the camp and move the conflict elsewhere so residents could safely return. At times, these efforts were on the verge of success. But an extremist minority, still holding out for total victory in its effort to topple the Syria government, succeeded at sabotaging a deal to spare Yarmouk.

It seemed like the situation couldn’t get any worse. But in April 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Daesh, popularly known in English as ISIS) infiltrated the camp. Fighting grew even more intense in a three-way fight between pro-government Palestinians, the foreign-backed militants who had originally infiltrated the camp, and the ruthless Daesh. As section after section of the camp fell to the latest intruders, most of the remaining civilians fell under the brutal tyranny of Daesh.

It wasn’t until three years later that Palestinian forces backed by the Syrian army made progress at liberating Yarmouk. Facing a concerted offensive, the armed groups in the camp – including Daesh – finally agreed to be evacuated to the countryside on government buses.

The right of return

Unlike the original Nakba when Zionists drove the Palestinians from their national homeland, Yarmouk residents have the right of return after their second Nakba in Yarmouk. But years of siege and violence left most of the camp in utter disrepair. It took another two years after its liberation before authorities deemed the camp safe enough from unexploded ordinances to begin reconstruction. Residents told Fight Back! that around 700 families have returned so far.

“The government is calling all Palestinians to return to Yarmouk,” says Wahdan. “They are ready to help them with the infrastructure, the roads, the electricity, the water.”

The return of a thriving Yarmouk will be slow. Engineers have to go building-by-building to determine which can be rehabilitated and which must be condemned. Tough planning debates lie ahead for Palestinian and Syrian residents alike in areas where the street grid needs to be redrawn from scratch. Meanwhile, U.S. economic sanctions target construction materials in an effort to discourage the return of refugees.

And of course, for Palestinians, the struggle doesn’t stop there.

“The camp is liberated from terrorists but we also want to get rid of the Zionist apartheid state so we can go back home,” says Naif.

Wahdan explains that the Palestinian issue was central to why the war in Syria broke out in the first place, citing a 2003 visit to Syria by then-U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who demanded that Syria close the offices of Palestinian resistance groups based in the country and make peace with Israel.

“After the government refused, the U.S. went to Plan B, which was inflicting this terrorist war,” she says.

“They want to liquidate the Palestinian issue. Dispersing the Palestinians from Syria, from Jordan, from Lebanon, means one thing for them: ending the Palestinian cause,” Wahdan continues. “But every action has a reaction. The Palestinians will never give up their pride to return to their homeland.”

Outside her home in Yarmouk camp, Naif agrees. “Palestine is Palestine. There is no nation called Israel. Jerusalem is our capital,” she says. “Peace will prevail in all parts of the world.”

Abeer Ali Naif with her Palestinian family.

Amal Wahdan, visiting from Ramallah, Palestine, in Yarmouk camp.

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