BEIRUT, Lebanon — Poverty and exile, siege and starvation, jihadist rule and government shelling. Few places have seen more suffering in Syria’s seven year, atrocity-filled war than the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk.
A striking 2014 picture of tired, gaunt-looking residents massing among the ruins for a food distribution drew comparisons with a World War II ghetto and became a symbol of the Syrian conflict.
The gutted neighborhood in southern Damascus was the Islamic State group’s last urban redoubt until Monday, when the last batch of jihadists evacuated after weeks of fighting.
The area was once Syria’s biggest Palestinian refugee camp, home to around 160,000 people.
Years of crippling siege and bombardment by the regime of President Bashar Assad, whose presidential compound is visible from the camp, had already sent tens of thousands of them into a second exile.
Yarmouk is one of the closest spots to central Damascus to have been controlled by IS, and the deal brokered in recent days to secure IS’s exit handed the government full control of the capital and its outskirts for the first time since 2012.
Government and allied forces turned their attention to Yarmouk and adjacent neighborhoods in the south of Damascus last month after focusing their efforts on the rebel enclave of Eastern Ghouta earlier this year.
Around 1,000 fighters remained in the Yarmouk area at the time, of which at least 233 were killed in this month’s fighting, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
Most of them were former members of Al-Qaeda’s Syrian ex-affiliate Al-Nusra Front, but IS fighters there also included Palestinian refugees, who joined when the Islamists took over much of the camp in 2015.
According to the Britain-based Observatory, the Syrian army led the battle, with Russian officers supervising and Palestinian militias contributing hundreds of foot soldiers.
IS jihadists posted several grisly pictures on their social media accounts, purportedly showing the regime or allied fighters they had beheaded during the operation, which the Observatory said also left more than 250 pro-regime fighters dead.
Yarmouk camp was opened in 1957, with tents set up for Palestinian families displaced during the establishment of Israel. These were soon replaced by permanent structures.
The wider area of Yarmouk was also home to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.
In 2011, regime attempts to use the traditionally apolitical Palestinian refugee community to raise tensions with Israel and divert attention from the internal uprising in Syria backfired.
Syrian opposition groups came to see Yarmouk as a potential forward base in their campaign to unseat Assad. The fighting that ensued leveled the area and forced most residents to flee.
According to the United Nations’ agency for Palestinian refugees UNRWA, most of the camp’s 6,000 residents have been displaced by the recent fighting.
The agency’s spokesman Chris Gunness said he was “deeply concerned” about them.
Yarmouk, which was meant as haven for displaced Palestinians, had come to symbolize a humanitarian catastrophe that caused some of the worst displacement since World War II.
A picture taken during a UN food distribution in January 2014 gripped the world’s imagination.
— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) December 4, 2015
The photo — depicting thousands of haggard-looking civilians thronging the ruins of their neighborhood as they waited for a food handout — drew parallels with the Warsaw ghetto, even in the Israeli press.
Gunness, the UNRWA spokesman, said that year: “The lexicon of man’s inhumanity to man has a new word: Yarmouk.”
Stories of children eating paper, families surviving on animal feed, and outbreaks of typhoid made Yarmouk a cause celebre, contributing to the global pressure on Assad.
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