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Palestinian refugees starving to death in Syrian camp, human rights groups say

By Samira Said, CNN
January 26, 2014 -- Updated 0101 GMT (0901 HKT)
  • The Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp is just 6 miles from central Damascus
  • At least 44 people have died from a lack of food and medical supplies there, activists say
  • Civil war fighting has cut off aid to the camp since November
  • Palestinian refugee status makes travel very difficult for camp residents

(CNN) -- A man lies dead; his severely emaciated body makes the rib cage protruding from his midsection look violent and sharp. A child sits in the dirt, the closed storefront behind him spray-painted with the words "I swear to God I am hungry." The lifeless body of a baby lies discolored and wrapped in a white sheet.

These are a few of the pictures activists have posted on social media pages from the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, just 6 miles from central Damascus.

The first to die from starvation at the camp was 4-year old Abdelhay Youssef on November 2, activists say.

Since then, at least 43 more people have died from a lack of food and medical supplies at the camp -- 28 from starvation, said the Palestine Association for Human Rights in Syria, which has gathered and posted the names of the dead.

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The camp has been cut off from aid since November 2013 and engulfed in fighting between the government and rebel forces since December 2012, when the Free Syrian Army rebel group gained control of the area but the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad controlled the entrances.

In late 2012, the Free Syrian Army clashed with the pro-Assad leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, which had run the camp. The regime still maintains control of camp entrances, and armed groups fighting near the entrances have prevented aid from entering.

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'We are dying, slowly'

"Today is the 180th day that food has not been allowed in Yarmouk," activist and resident who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Mohammed said. "We had food when it started, and it (has run out) since then."

People are now surviving on water boiled with herbs, he said, or families sharing a cup of rice with their neighbors. "We are dying, slowly," he said.

"Just today, three people tried to go to an empty field to eat grass from the ground, and they were shot by snipers," he said, his voice rising in frustration. "If you can imagine -- people are dying just to eat grass."

Another picture from the camp shows stalks of cactus that activists say are being sold for 500 Syrian pounds ($3.50).

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, has tried to give food and other aid to camp residents "amid reports of widespread malnutrition in Yarmouk, amid reports of women dying during childbirth because of shortages of medical care, amid reports of children eating animal feed to survive," said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the agency.

Their attempts have been unsuccessful. On Monday, aid trucks had to retreat after the Syrian government told the convoy to enter from the camp's southern entrance, where heavy gunfire prevented it from proceeding.

In a video posted on YouTube, a young man who appears to be a teenager cries hysterically: "(A kilogram) of rice costs 10,000 Syrian pounds ($70)! We don't have enough! We have nothing to do with either side (of the fighting)! We want to eat and drink! We want to be safe! Have mercy on us!"

According to estimates from the UNRWA, there were 160,000 Palestinian refugees in the Yarmouk camp before the fighting began, and 18,000 remain.

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It's difficult to leave

For residents who can afford to leave, their Palestinian refugee status makes travel very difficult. "Our passports are Syrian-Palestinian passports. We can leave Syria, but we can't enter Palestine. Even if we could (leave the camp), we cannot go to Turkey without a visa, and Jordan will never let us in. We cannot go to Iraq. To go to Europe, we need visas. We have no embassies in Syria, but Lebanon will not let us in unless we have already a visa (to somewhere else), since we are only allowed a 48-hour transit visa in Lebanon," Abu Mohammed said.

Yarmouk has seen widespread cases of "malnutrition and the absence of medical care, including for those who have severe conflict-related injuries, and including for women in childbirth, with fatal consequences for some women. Residents including infants and children are subsisting for long periods on diets of stale vegetables, herbs, powdered tomato paste, animal feed and cooking spices dissolved in water," Gunness said.

"The hijacking of Yarmouk camp in Damascus by armed groups that have practiced and still practice methodical terrorism constitutes a war crime against humanity," Palestinian Labor Minister Ahmad Majdalani said on a visit to Damascus, according to the Syrian state-run SANA news agency.

"There has been an appalling absence of electricity and heating for horrendously long periods, now close to one year, with all (that) this implies for poor health. Residents are having to rely on going out on terraces and burning furniture and branches to warm themselves in the open because wood fires cannot be resorted to indoors," Gunness said.

"The scale of the crisis in Syria, with millions of civilians affected, is staggering and the humanitarian response insufficient," Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said Monday, at the end of a three-day visit to the country.

"We are under the control of the FSA, and they need to fight for us, to break this siege," said Abu Mohammed, the camp resident and activist. "If they aren't fighting for us, they should leave."

The camp "remains a place where extreme human suffering in primitively harsh conditions is the norm for Palestinian and Syrian civilians living there. I emphasize that the imperative remains that Syrian authorities and other parties must allow and facilitate safe and open humanitarian access into Yarmouk to enable us to assist civilians trapped there," Gunness said.

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