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18,000 people are trapped in a Syrian "death camp" between ISIS and Assad

Residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp waiting in line for food aid in January 2014.
Residents of the Yarmouk refugee camp waiting in line for food aid in January 2014.
(United Nation Relief and Works Agency via Getty Images)

"In the horror that is Syria, the Yarmouk refugee camp is the deepest circle of hell," UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said on April 9. "A refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp."

Yarmouk, a small urban enclave on the outskirts of Damascus, used to be home to more than 150,000 Palestinian refugees. But the camp became a battlefield in Syria's civil war, and those who could flee left long ago. ISIS invaded Yarmouk in early April, and now controls 60 percent of the camp.

Yarumouk's remaining 18,000 residents, including 3,500 children, are trapped there, desperate for help that shows no sign of coming. Ban warned that they were becoming "human shields" in Syria's war.

"If you want to feed your children, you need to take your funeral shroud with you. There are snipers on every street, you are not safe anywhere," a camp resident told Israeli news site Ynet. "My neighbor went to get food for his children, was shot by a sniper and died. Today we buried him."

Another resident, speaking to the UN, described horrible burdens of hunger, thirst, and cold. "To know what it is like in Yarmouk, turn off your electricity, water, heating, eat once a day, live in the dark, live by burning wood."

Yarmouk has become a microcosm of the most tragic aspects of the Syrian conflict. As multiple groups — all vicious — struggle for control over the territory, civilians have been caught in the middle, and suffer horribly for it.

Camp residents are severely malnourished and dehydrated. The UN estimates that the civilians of Yarmouk are subsisting on starvation rations of only 400 calories a day. There is no running water, and humanitarian groups have been blocked from delivering aid.

International actors have been left without any legitimate partner for civilian protection. The Palestine Liberation Organization has wavered publicly about whether to cooperate with the Assad regime to drive ISIS out of the camp, issuing a series of conflicting statements about the organization's stance.

And the bombs and bullets are unceasing. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based aid group, told the New York Times that the Assad regime had dropped 36 barrel bombs on the camp between April 5 and 10, killing dozens of people.

"The sky of Yarmouk has barrel bombs instead of stars," said Abdallah al-Khateeb, a Palestinian activist who lives in Yarmouk.

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