Beirut, Asharq Al-Awsat—United Nations officials renewed their warnings of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp in southern Damascus on Sunday, the day after they predicted existing food supplies in the camp would run out after a 12-day interruption in supplies.
Syrian activists said around 30 people had recently died of starvation in the camp, bringing the total death toll to 100 since the camp was besieged by Syrian government forces a year ago.
Officials from the UN Relief and Works Administration (UNRWA) have been able to gain only sporadic access to the camp since an agreement brokered between all sides in the conflict broke down last month. According to the UNRWA, there are more than 20,000 people in the camp who rely on food aid to survive.
The organization says it needs to deliver 700 food parcels a day, each of which feeds eight people for ten days. As of Monday, no food is reported to have arrived in the camp for the past 12 days.
On Sunday, London’s Independent newspaper quoted UNRWA official Chris Gunness as saying: “Even before this, there were reports of deaths from starvation and mothers feeding their children vegetation and herbs picked up from the road.” He added that “the situation in Yarmouk is truly miserable, and has now become more than miserable.”
Opposition activists said the siege was not limited to Yarmouk but included the surrounding areas, and claimed that the number of civilians under siege in southern Damascus numbered around 50,000.
A member of opposition’s Revolutionary Coordination Committee in Rif Dimashq outside the capital, Isma’il Al-Darani, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the last supplies to reach the camp arrived “more than 10 days ago, and were delivered by the Syrian Red Crescent.”
Darani said the camps inhabitants, numbering more than 20,000, “received quantities of food which were not enough for 1,000 people.”
The Syrian government accused rebels, most prominently the Al-Nusra Front, of violating the truce and re-entering the camp despite an agreement between the government and the opposition to allow aid supplies into the camp in return for the opposition’s surrendering their heavy weapons.
Darani said: “Besieged residents have started to grow vegetables, such as radishes and herbs on the roofs, to lessen the problem of hunger in the camp,” but that Yarmouk lacked sufficient arable land to become self-sufficient.
He said the military checkpoints around Yarmouk, especially the Bawabah checkpoint between Maydan and the camp, “stopped food going into the camp completely,” but added that some food reached the camp and was sold at exorbitant prices by smugglers.
The government forces are also besieging the area of Al-Hajar Al-Aswad, also in southern Damascus. Opposition sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that the varied background of the residents in the area—including Turkmen people displaced from Quneitra in the Golan Heights, as well as Syrians and Palestinians—meant “a disorganized military scene, which did not follow the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or the other influential organizations to effect initiatives to reach a truce and allow civilians to leave.”
Meanwhile, Damascus announced that its forces have distributed aid in the Qalamoun and northern Rif Dimashq after regaining control of the areas last week. The official SANA news agency said government forces “provided all residents’ needs when the Syrian Arab Army delivered thousands of food parcels to the families of these towns.”
SANA said on Sunday that convoys carrying food and humanitarian aid “arrived in Aleppo after the armed forces secured the international highway.”
Aleppo governor, Mohammad Wahid Aqqad said: “Around 200 lorries laden with food, vegetables, fruit and humanitarian aid, in addition to passenger vehicles, began to arrive in the area since Sunday morning after the roads were secured and following the reopening of Aleppo—Khanasser road, and the elimination of armed terrorist groups which had controlled the road.”
In contrast, Syrian activists said that dozens had been killed in government airstrikes in Aleppo on Sunday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based watchdog, said its activists reported 29 people had been killed in the city’s commercial district by government airstrikes, while 14 more were killed by “barrel bombs”—improvised explosive weapons—dropped from government helicopters in the Baeedeen district.
In Damascus, Syrian state TV reported that five people had been killed in a rebel mortar attack that struck close to the Syrian parliament.
The attack coincided with an announcement from the speaker of parliament, Mohamed Jihad Al-Laham, who said on Monday that the country would hold a presidential election on June 3, and that candidates had until May 1 to register for the polls.
Incumbent president Bashar Al-Assad, buoyed by recent victories against the rebels, is expected to announce that he is standing for another seven-year term.
Syrian opposition groups were quick to denounce the move, with many labelling it a “farce.”