The fate of 18,000 civilians trapped in the besieged Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria – now mostly controlled by the Islamic State – remains in the balance, with the United Nations describing the situation as “catastrophic”.
Those left are slowly starving to death as the fighting rages around them, with aid agencies unable to negotiate a safe passage into the Palestinian refugee camp, which lies on the southern outskirts of the Syrian capital Damascus.
Most residents were reduced to a food intake of just 400 calories per day, well below the World Health Organisation-recommended minimum of 2100 calories, warned Pierre Krähenbühl, commissioner-general of the United Nations Reliefs and Works Agency.
Once home to 170,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians, all but 10 per cent of Yarmouk’s citizens have been driven out of the camp by two years of relentless fighting between militia groups loyal to the Syrian regime as well as those seeking to overthrow it.
Mr Krähenbühl, who visited Yarmouk three weeks ago, said the plight of civilians “is more desperate than ever … it is a totally catastrophic humanitarian situation”. “I witnessed scenes of unbearable suffering … [it] was unbearable three weeks ago and it has now deteriorated further.”
Describing a successful intervention to save the residents of Yarmouk as a test for the entire international community, Mr Krähenbühl called on all parties – political and religious – to try to bring some influence on the armed groups to protect the civilians of Yarmouk.
The United Nations Security Council met in an emergency, closed session late on Monday. Afterwards it issued a statement condemning the crimes committed against civilians in Yarmouk and calling on warring militia to cease fighting and allow the safe passage of desperately needed humanitarian aid into the camp.
But even as the Security Council met, there were reports that fresh fighting had broken out, with sporadic shelling and clashes between armed groups. Local activists reported the Syrian regime air force had also dropped several barrel bombs in the area.
Fighters from the Islamic State stormed the camp on April 1, where they are fighting against at least “half a dozen” other armed groups including the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra fighting for territory.
There were reports over the weekend from the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Islamic State militants had begun beheading members of a Palestinian militant group that had previously been in control of the camp. Mr Krähenbühl was unable to confirm those reports, although he warned the clashes had reached the most heavily populated part of the camp.
Civilians are “cowering in their battered homes in profound fear, desperate for security, food and water,” the UN said.
It was virtually impossible for civilians to leave Yarmouk as any attempt to move in the open brings high risk, he said, although just under 100 people had managed to escape to a neighbouring suburb on the weekend.
But along with the humanitarian catastrophe, experts warned that should IS gain control of Yarmouk (reports indicate it holds almost all the camp) it would mark a significant advance towards the Syrian capital, just 10 minutes away.
“The outskirts of Damascus have symbolic and strategic importance” for ISIS, writes Hassan Hassan, a Middle East analyst and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, in The National.
“The Yarmouk camp is a gateway into both central Damascus and the area mentioned in Islamic apocalyptic traditions (‘Muslims’ stronghold will be in Ghouta, near a city called Damascus.’)”
The presence of the extremist Sunni group near Damascus would also help attract more recruits, appealing to those alienated by the regime forces and other militia groups in the area, he said.