• Sheet of paper Report

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

March 10, 2014

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.

Within the context of the siege, Syrian security forces have also arrested scores of Yarmouk residents, many of whom they have subjected to enforced disappearance. Some have died in custody in suspicious circumstances. Those arrested include at least 12 medical workers; six of whom were subjected to enforced disappearance and remain unaccounted for and another who died in the custody of Syrian security forces. All appear to have been targeted by the Syrian security forces on account of their activities as medical workers. Other medical and health workers have been killed and injured in apparently targeted or indiscriminate attacks by the Syrian government forces besieging Yarmouk.

The plight of the Palestinian refugees of Syria is a catastrophe within the wider catastrophe of Syria. Almost two thirds of Syria's 530,000 Palestinian refugees have once again been displaced. Approximately 270,000 Palestinians are internally displaced in Syria. More than 50,000 are reported to have fled to Lebanon, 11,000 to Jordan, 6,000 to Egypt, 1,000 to Libya, 1,000 to Gaza and others to Turkey, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia and other countries. As early as July 2013, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which provides protection and assistance to some 5 million Palestinian refugees across Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza Strip, described the community as "unravelling and in acute distress".

This report draws on information provided to Amnesty International by six current residents of Yarmouk and 12 former residents, now either internally displaced within Syria or living as refugees abroad and who remain in contact sporadically, and with great difficulty, with family members and others who remain in Yarmouk. Amnesty International's interviews with all of these individuals have been conducted via the internet, Skype and telephone. Additional information has been obtained from representatives of human rights, humanitarian and medical organizations as well as through monitoring of video clips and other images published by residents of Yarmouk and others. Amnesty International is withholding the identities of all those who contributed information to this report to protect their security. International humanitarian law – the laws of war – prohibits the use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare. Syrian government forces and other parties to the conflict must allow and facilitate rapid and unimpeded passage of impartial humanitarian assistance to civilians in need. They must also allow civilians in besieged areas to leave and ensure the freedom of movement of authorized humanitarian relief personnel. The parties to the armed conflict must ensure that the wounded and sick are collected and cared for without adverse distinction. Sieges that amount to collective punishment of the civilian population are prohibited under international humanitarian law.

Amnesty International is calling on the Syrian government and military forces to immediately lift the siege of Yarmouk and other civilian areas, cease shelling and other indiscriminate attacks and direct attacks on civilians, and allow humanitarian organizations and agencies unfettered access to all areas to assist the civilian population without discrimination. This should include cross-border access from neighbouring states such as Turkey into areas under the control of armed opposition forces, as well as access across conflict lines between government and opposition forces. Armed opposition groups, likewise, should allow unfettered access by humanitarian agencies to civilians in areas under their control and refrain from indiscriminate and other unlawful attacks. All sides should respect the role of medical workers and refrain from attacks on medical and other humanitarian workers.

All sides should also respect the international prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment and ensure that all detainees are treated humanely at all times. Anyone detained or imprisoned on account of their legitimate exercise of human rights or on account of their identity should be released immediately.

The UN Security Council should continue to address the dire humanitarian situation in Syria and make clear to all parties that they will be held accountable under international justice for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other gross human rights abuses by the forces under their command. Towards this end, the Security Council should refer without delay the situation in Syria to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court.