Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using the starvation of civilians as a weapon of war, according to a new report by Amnesty International on crimes committed against Palestinian and Syrian civilians in the Damascus suburb of Yarmouk.
The report, “Squeezing the life out of Yarmouk: War crimes against besieged civilians,” comes ahead of the third anniversary of the civil war in Syria and highlights the deaths of nearly 200 Yarmouk residents since the siege around it was tightened in July 2013. Access to food, fuel, and medical supplies was cut off in Yarmouk as well as in other districts of the capital and other areas near major cities such as Homs and Aleppo.
Neil Sammonds, the lead researcher of the report, told The Jerusalem Post that in the last few weeks, since they finished the report, the situation has gotten worse.
Food deliveries by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) stopped in March, said Sammonds.
In addition, armed rebel groups such al-Qaida’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, and its rival jihadist group, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), have returned to the camp, he said, as they have secret ways to break through the siege.
Since March 2, these groups have returned because they felt that the Syrian Army was not upholding the agreement to lift the siege. The Syrian government and the opposition came to a fragile agreement whereby fighters agreed to leave the camp in exchange for a lift to the siege. The deal broke down last week as fighters returned to the camp.
“The Syrian government did allow more aid in and 500 ill and injured people could leave, but the government didn’t abide by the agreement,” asserted Sammonds.
The report focuses on the situation in Yarmouk, where the siege has had the harshest impact. Palestinians who live there are former refugees or their descendants, who fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence or the 1967 Six Day War.
Yarmouk was home to the country’s largest Palestinian refugee community, comprising some 180,000 Palestinians and several hundred thousand Syrians. Around 17,000-20,000 people remain, many who are elderly or sick.
Almost two thirds of Syria’s 530,000 Palestinians are internally displaced in Syria and more than 50,000 reportedly 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 among others, according to the report.
According to Amnesty International’s research, 128 of the deaths were due to starvation. The camp has been without electricity since April.
“Life in Yarmouk has grown increasingly unbearable for desperate civilians who find themselves starving and trapped in a downward cycle of suffering with no means of escape,” said Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Amnesty International.
Attacks against schools, hospitals, and mosques have been carried out by air raids and heavy weapons. Doctors and medical staff have also been targeted, said the report.
“Launching indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas, leading to deaths and injuries, is a war crime. To repeatedly strike a heavily populated area, where the civilians have no means of escape, demonstrates a ruthless attitude and a callous disregard for the most basic principles of international humanitarian law,” said Luther.
The report is based on information provided by six current residents of Yarmouk and 12 former ones. Other information was obtained from the representatives of other humanitarian organizations.
Sixty percent of camp residents are suffering from malnutrition and residents told Amnesty that they had not eaten fruits or vegetables for many months. Prices have increased dramatically, with a kilo of rice costing up to $100.
“Syrian forces are committing war crimes by using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war. The harrowing accounts of families having to resort to eating cats and dogs, and civilians attacked by snipers as they forage for food, have become all too familiar details of the horror story that has materialized in Yarmouk,” said Luther.
“Deaths are mounting in Yarmouk and the situation is dire. It is extremely distressing to think that, in many cases, lives could have been saved had proper medical care been available,” he added.
Despite some food aid, which has been supplied by UNRWA since the beginning of the year, it is not making a significant impact on the situation, say aid workers.
Hospitals are suffering from a shortage of basic medical supplies and most have been forced to close. Residents told Amnesty that rebel groups fighting the government have stolen supplies and ambulances.
“Targeting doctors or medical workers who are trying to assist the sick and wounded is a war crime. All sides must refrain from attacks on medical and other humanitarian workers,” stated Luther.
In addition, Amnesty International calls for the immediate release of political prisoners, with more than 80 still in detention as of late February.
“The siege of Yarmouk amounts to collective punishment of the civilian population. The Syrian government must end its siege immediately and allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to assist suffering civilians,” said Luther.
A UN Security Council resolution last month called on all parties to immediately lift sieges in populated areas and give full humanitarian access, but has yet led to changes on the ground.
Amnesty International also calls on anyone suspected of committing war crimes to be brought to justice by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC).