24 August 2013]
Many Flee, as Worries Over Chemical Weapons Mount
Among those who have fled Syria from the Yarmouk Palestinian camp in Damascus are close to 50,000 children. This is the figure cited by the Palestinian Popular Committees in the Damascus-Homs area as well as Anthony Lake, head of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF. Roughly 75% of the Palestinian youngsters fleeing the country are under the age of 11, and they make up a significant part of the approximately one million children altogether who have been displaced by the fighting in Syria.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees places the refugee count at more than one million. This is in addition to the two million children who are internally displaced—forced to flee their homes in the face of a conflict which has morphed into a vicious, sectarian civil war.
Problems for Palestinian refugees continue at the Syria-Lebanon Masnaa crossing, adding to the number of children who are homeless and without encouraging prospects of finding either shelter or school enrollment as classes begin next month. Approximately 8000 children, younger than fifteen, have been killed so far in the 30 month civil conflict in Syria.
According to information this observer has received from the Palestinian Popular Committees—in Yarmouk as well as the twelve other Palestinian camps in Syria—evidence now suggests the possibility, indeed probability, of terrorist use of chemical weapons in some of the camp areas. They have called upon Palestinian factions to take preemptive steps to prevent further incidents.
The Popular Committee inside the “free” area of Yarmouk (pockets inside the eastern edge of the camp) issued a statement which included the following: “In the framework of agitating the political and media war against the government of Syria, channels of destruction and sedition have started to air misleading propaganda, claiming that the Syrian Arab Army would fire mortars and or missiles into the camp with chemical gases, whereas these elements themselves are planning chemical attacks to blame the government much as what happened in Irbin.”
The Committee added, “Those who invaded and destroyed the camp after having displaced its residents would not hesitate to use the meanest ways of killing and destruction to fulfill the U.S.-Zionist goals.”
The statement was drafted by advisers to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,-GC, led by Ahmed Jabril, a staunch supporter of Syria’s President Bashar Assad. On 8/22/13, the PFLP-GC was targeted by Israel when a missile struck just meters from the entrance to one of a series of underground tunnels in a valley in Naameh, an area 15 kilometers south of Beirut, where the group maintains a military base.
Israel said the attack was in retaliation for Thursday’s rocket attack from Lebanon into the Jewish state. The PFLP-GC source denied the group’s involvement in that attack..
Palestinian camp officials, as well as various medical groups, are growing frustrated with a lack of activity from chief U.N. inspector Ake Sellstrom and his delegation, who seem to linger for considerable amounts of time in the lobby of their 5-star hotel and its swimming pool. As it happens, the hotel is situated only a few kilometers from Ghouta, the green belt which surrounds Damascus, as well as the Yarmouk camp and the nearby attack area.
“What are they waiting for?”—is a commonly expressed sentiment heard this morning in Irbid, site of the alleged chemical weapon attack.
“They can give me their equipment and I will gather evidence for them if they are too busy,” commented one Palestinian youngster to this observer.
Residents in the Damascus suburbs, and also at Yarmouk, at least seem relieved that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has just urged the Syrian government to allow in the UN inspectors without delay to thoroughly investigate this crime against humanity.
Palestinian sentiments expressed to this observer by refugees in Damascus and Homs seem largely in keeping with what the Syrian government has been saying—namely that Western accusations of government involvement are probably false—and like many others they point to the illogical timing of the attack, just days after the arrival of the inspectors. A change from this initial tentative conclusion is not impossible, however.
Near Irbid one now hears estimates of more than 1,500 killed, with more victims being discovered still, while figures cited by the Unified Medical Bureau for Eastern Gouta are even higher. One Palestinian member of Yarmouk’s Popular Committee, whose family village is near Safad, pointed to the location of the attacks—Irbin, Jobar, Zamalka and Ain Tarma, rebel strongholds in the portion of the Ghouta east of Damascus, as well as the town of Muadhamiya which is maybe five miles south.
One reason the casualty figures are so high, people from the gassed areas explain, is due to lack of air conditioning. Most residents in this area sleep with their windows opened; victims died in their beds during the early morning attack.
As of morning on 8/23/13, many of the remaining Palestinians in Yarmouk are seeking somewhere to flee to, visibly afraid that chemical weapons will be used in Yarmouk in the coming days.
Franklin Lamb is doing research in Syria and Lebanon and can be reached c/o [email protected]