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UNRWA’s Filippo Grandi back from Syria’s Yarmouk camp: the devastation is unbelievable

BEIRUT | - February 26, 2014, 19h09
Photo: UN press center.
On Tuesday UNRWA's Commissioner General Filippo Grandi spoke to the press in Beirut. He was back from his visit to Yarmouk camp, Damascus.
How do you feel about the latest UNSC resolution on humanitarian aid in Syria?
"The resolution is a very important framework. The most important part of the resolution, or aspect of the resolution, is the fact that it was voted by the Security Council in unanimity, so it represents the unanimous will of the international community to support humanitarian access. This gives that resolution political weight, and gives us a tool to argue in favor of access, that is stronger than any other tool we've ever had before in Syria. But of course, the other side of the coin here is that the Syrian war is very messy and very localized. I saw them yesterday myself in Yarmouk. In order for me to go, for my staff inside to observe distribution, we had to go through very complex negotiations with a lot of different groups. I was encouraged by the government approval and support for this, and I hope it will continue, but I was encouraged in general by the willingness of the parties to allow not only my visit, which is not as important, but the distributions to continue. The point I made is that this cannot be intermittent, because hunger is not intermittent. This has to be daily, it has to be more expanded, because we only go in one small portion of the camp, we have to reach out to the people in need, and eventually all of our services have to be restored."

Is the government responding to the resolution, which you described as a tool to press for greater access?
"It's very early to say.... On the ground, we did have access after that. This is not in fact only about the government. It's about the government and armed opposition groups-everybody has to comply. The resolution is directed at all the parties to the conflict, so I think the resolution will be important in that respect. But let me repeat it again: one has to understand the particular dynamics of the Syria conflict. The lines of command and the local power play between groups are very complicated. Not all of the people that make decisions on a daily basis have even read the resolution. So it's important that the message is filtered down from the decision makers, political decision makers in Syria, to the commanders on the ground on both sides so that humanitarian agencies can have access. This is the immediate access, then of course there is demilitarization, there are broader issues that are stipulated very clearly in the resolution that have to be implemented. I think it will take time, but we have a good starting point."

Have local commanders prevented aid from reaching Yarmouk, cases of decisions above not filtering down to the ground?
"It has happened for sure. You must also understand that the issue in Yarmouk somehow is even more complicated than other situations. In addition to the government and the armed opposition groups that we see throughout Syria, we have the Palestinian element. There is a very small minority of Palestinians fighting on both sides, and they also have a say in these negotiations. This has made it complicated. But like I said, I think that the fact that at a higher political level there must be acceptance for a unanimously approved international resolution. It's a matter of time, patience and persistence. Unfortunately, there isn't much time in places where people are dying of hunger. But we hope this will now be accelerated. Look, I think you're right. There are access problems still, but I think that we also need to look at it from a slightly more hopeful perspective. We are now making small breakthroughs in Homs, in Yarmouk, UNRWA and its partners, and let's see that as a positive side and build on it to gain more access to other places which don't have any access yet."

What sort of access granted to Yarmouk?
We are aware that inside Yarmouk there are at least 18,000 Palestinian refugees left of the original 160,000. There are also an uncounted number of Syrians because yarmouk is a mixed area. We have been able to deliver since January 18, nearly 7,000 food parcels. That will cover more or less the needs for one month of the Palestinians there. But frankly, it's very little, and probably they have already eaten all that has been distributed. This cannot be stopped. This has to continue. And I have another point which I really assessed yesterday. The people who received the food are the ones that come to the distribution points and retrieve it. What about those who cannot come? I'm pretty sure that there are many people who have never received assistance in the least month because they are too weak, or maybe elderly, or unaccompanied children. So in order to do this, we need to go far beyond the limited area that we have access to now. This is important."

Who is restricting access?
The agreement between all the groups inside and the government and the groups outside only foresees for the time being that we distribute in a kind of no-man's land which is secured by both sides. Now, we need the agreement to be fully implemented. The agreement says that there will be a system of shared control of the whole area so that humanitarian assistance can spread throughout the camp. We're not yet there. They haven't yet been able to implement the agreement in full.

What does Yarmouk look like, and what did people tell you during your trip?
The most striking feature is the destruction of the buildings. Now this may not be throughout the area because I saw what was presumably only the front line. The devastation is unbelievable. There is not one single building that I have seen that is not an empty shell by now. They're all blackened by smoke. That is a pretty eerie sight, also because the outskirts everybody has left, so it's empty. So it's like a ghost town. I haven't seen many of these in my career.

The second striking aspect is even more shocking; it's the people. The checkpoint that we were allowed to reach, wasn’t very visible because there were barricades, so the people coming from within Yarmouk appear suddenly near this distribution point. It's like the appearance of ghosts. These are people that have not been out of there, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medication, clean water, but also probably completely subjected to fear because there was fierce fighting taking place, and that was the most shocking point. They can hardly speak. I tried to speak to many of them, and they all tell the same stories of complete deprivation. And some want to leave, some cannot really leave because they still have relatives inside, and I think that's the most important thing that we must do now.

What is the status of other Palestinian camps in Syria?

Generally, the Palestinian camps in Homs, Hama, Latakia _ the central part of Syria _ have been left relatively unscathed. Ain al-Tal, which is another camp near Aleppo, has been taken over by an armed opposition group and emptied of its population. And the area around Damascus varies, but my impression was that there was growing relative stability in Sbineh, Husseiniyeh, and in Qabr Essit, and in some of the camps, but still a very uncertain situation. Khan Eshieh, for example, a very important camp south of Damascus is completely inaccessible. It's like a mini-Yarmouk, although we haven't been talking about it so much, it's smaller. And we are of course now extremely worried about the south, which is probably one of the most restless regions at the moment. We've have the terrible incident last week in a school or outside a school near Daraa, where 18 people were killed in an explosion. The dynamics are still unclear. Five of whom unfortunately were children from our school, and one was a staff member. So the situation in the south at the moment is the most difficult to evaluate and the one that raises the most concerns.
In the south, as I said, it's been very, very dangerous to provide assistance for a long time. Actually, I think it is becoming worse in the Palestinian inhabited areas. Most of the people who live in the Daraa camp have gone out, mostly to adjacent areas.
I think there have been many situations in the country in which both sides have impeded aid from being delivered, deprived people of aid because a military and security logic prevailed. That has to end. But you know, we're not naive, we know how difficult this will continue to be.
It's also the multiplicity of armed groups that makes things difficult, because there has to be an agreement among them for them then to agree with the government. That makes the whole situation very difficult.
I think that the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah took a strong interest and role in trying to mediate between all these factions (in Yarmouk)… and I think they should be encouraged to continue in that important roll to try to mediate.
We said it all along; the Palestinian military involvement is going to be
detrimental first and foremost to the Palestinians. The Palestinian civilians I talked to felt very strongly about this. They think that the first to go out should be the Palestinian armed elements _ both pro- and anti-government.

What is biggest challenge going forward to meet needs of Palestinians in Yarmouk?
"Ten days ago I would have said access. Now, I would say the sustainability of the access that we have gained. ... This will be very tough. This will require the cooperation of everybody. Of the government - which has given it to me verbally, the promises, the assurances. I want to take them at their word, and I trust that they will keep their word. And I think that that is going to be the challenge, the sustainability of the access."
#Yarmouk, #Syria, #Palestinian_refugees, #UNRWA
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