Syria: Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians

March 10, 2014

Syria: Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians

Three years after popular pro-reform then anti-government protests drew a brutal response from the Syrian authorities, leading to the internal armed conflict that continues to rage, around a quarter of a million civilians are living under siege across Syria. Many have endured appalling conditions in their struggle to survive. Most live in areas besieged by Syrian government forces and have been effectively confined for a year or more in areas devastated by bombing and shelling. The besieged people have little food; some have resorted to killing cats and dogs to eat while those who forage for leaves and weeds for their families to consume are prey to government snipers. Meanwhile, in other areas where the government retains popular support, civilians have come under siege from armed opposition forces who have severed much-needed food, fuel and medical supplies.

The areas under siege by Syrian government forces include suburbs and other districts of the capital Damascus, as well as areas within or close to other major cities, such as Homs and Aleppo. Yarmouk, located some 8km from the centre of Damascus, and Eastern Ghouta, on the city's eastern edge, have both been subjected to repeated attacks and prolonged sieges by troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, as have parts of Homs, Syria's third largest city, and al-Hassaka in the north-east. Fighters opposed to the government have besieged the central prison in the northern city of Aleppo, Syria's most populous city, and the nearby villages of Zahraa and Nobl, whose inhabitants they perceive as supporting the government.

This report focuses on the situation in Yarmouk, where the siege has been particularly prolonged, has had the harshest impact, and has caused the largest number of deaths from starvation. A highly built-up area of 2km2, Yarmouk is situated on the south side of Damascus. Its residents include Palestinians and Syrians; the former are refugees, Palestinians and their descendants who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 conflict that saw the creation of the State of Israel or the subsequent war of 1967 when Israel invaded and occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip. When the current crisis began in Syria, Yarmouk was home to the country's largest Palestinian refugee community. It was a densely populated area that resembled a residential district rather than a refugee camp. Its residents comprised some 180,000 Palestinian refugees and several hundred thousand Syrian nationals. Once the conflict took hold, thousands of people displaced by fighting in other parts of Syria arrived to seek shelter in Yarmouk, while thousands of its existing residents left to seek shelter elsewhere, some as refugees and others who remain internally displaced within Syria.

Government forces besieged Yarmouk in December 2012. In July 2013 they began to prevent all access to Yarmouk. Since then, with the exception of some intermittent distribution since 18 January 2014, the Syrian army has prevented the entry of all people, and all food and goods, including medical supplies, into Yarmouk. The civilians who remain, reportedly numbering some 17,000 to 20,000 people, include many who are elderly and sick and families with young children.

Scores of civilians are reported to have died in Yarmouk as a direct result of the siege or have been killed in attacks by Syrian government forces. Amnesty International has obtained information about 194 individuals, all said to be civilians, who have lost their lives since government forces tightened the siege in July 2013. Starvation, lack of adequate medical care and shooting by snipers are the three main causes of death reported to Amnesty International. Many other Yarmouk civilians have been wounded or maimed, or have fallen victim to illnesses caused by the severe conditions to which they have been exposed for so long. Yarmouk's civilians have been brought to the brink of starvation, forced to forage for any food that they can find. They have few and diminishing medical facilities available to treat their sick and wounded. Every day they face uncertainty about their future and what the Syrian government forces may do to them if and when the siege ends. Elsewhere, other communities in Syria remain under siege by government troops and face similar privations and fears.