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UNRWA chief visits Syria's pulverised Yarmouk refugee camp

Yarmouk was once a thriving district of the capital home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees. [Getty]

Date of publication: 4 July, 2018

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Yarmouk, which was meant as haven for displaced Palestinians, had come to symbolise a humanitarian catastrophe that caused some of the worst displacement since World War II.

The head of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Pierre Krahenbuhl, on Tuesday visited the Yarmouk camp in southern Damascus that has been pulverised in the Syrian conflict.

"A visit to Yarmouk is a very deeply moving experience. You can't escape a deep sense of shock at the level of destruction," he told reporters after the first visit to the Palestinian refugee camp for several years by a senior UN official.

"The scale of the destruction in Yarmouk compares to very little else that I have seen in many years of humanitarian work in conflict zones," Krahenbuhl said.

"It's clear that for Palestine refugees the big question... is the prospect of return to Yarmouk," added the commissioner general of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).

Syria's army announced on 21 May that was in full control of Damascus after a month-long assault that ousted the Islamic State group from Yarmouk and surrounding districts south of the capital.

The gutted neighbourhood in southern Damascus was the Islamic State group's last urban redoubt until the last batch of jihadists evacuated after weeks of fighting.

Yarmouk was once a thriving district of the capital, home to some 160,000 Palestinian refugees as well as Syrians. Most of its population fled waves of fierce fighting that also swept the camp in 2012 and 2015.

Mohamed Abdi Adar, the UNRWA chief for Syria, said around 25,000 Palestinian refugees were affected by the latest round of fighting between the regime and rebels since last month in the southern region of Daraa.

'Man's inhumanity to man'

Yarmouk camp was opened in 1957 with tents set up for Palestinian families forced to leave their homes by the establishment of Israel. These were soon replaced by permanent structures. 

In 2011, regime attempts to use the traditionally apolitical Palestinian refugee community to raise tensions with Israel and divert attention from the internal uprising in Syria backfired.

Syrian opposition groups came to see Yarmouk as a potential forward base in their campaign to unseat Assad. The fighting that ensued levelled the area and forced most residents to flee.   

Yarmouk, which was meant as haven for displaced Palestinians, had come to symbolise a humanitarian catastrophe that caused some of the worst displacement since World War II.

A picture taken during a UN food distribution in January 2014 gripped the world's imagination.

The photo - depicting thousands of haggard-looking civilians thronging the ruins of their neighbourhood as they waited for a food handout - drew parallels with the Warsaw ghetto, even in the Israeli press.

Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman, said that year: "The lexicon of man's inhumanity to man has a new word: Yarmouk."

Stories of children eating paper, families surviving on animal feed, and outbreaks of typhoid made Yarmouk a cause celebre, contributing to the global pressure on Assad.

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