DAMASCUS, Syria — When the first Syrian soldier reached Lod street in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria’s capital, four sisters who survived the seven-year conflict hiding in their ground floor apartment emerged hesitantly and asked: “Are you a soldier or a militant?”
The young man came closer and took out his military ID to prove he was a Syrian soldier. The women began wailing emotionally, hardly believing that three years of rule by the Islamic State group had come to an end.
“The nightmare is over. They are gone,” said 62-year-old Izdihar Abdul-Mahmoud.
The Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, once home to the largest concentration of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, housing nearly 160,000 people, has been gutted by years of war. Its few remaining residents have been traumatized by relentless fighting, bombardment, siege, and starvation. To rise again, officials estimated that 80 percent of its homes will need to be razed.
On a recent afternoon, the Abdul-Mahmoud sisters gathered with neighbors, friends, and soldiers outside their apartment, recalling the horrors they lived through the past years as they sipped dark Arabic coffee. Under IS, they were not allowed to even sit in the alley where their apartment is located.
“At the start of the siege I used to weigh 87 kilograms [191 pounds] and later 49 kilograms [107 pounds] in late 2013 and early 2014,” said Izdihar, the eldest of six sisters and four brothers.
Before the war, Yarmouk was a densely populated district of cheaply built multistory homes but was called a “camp” because Palestinians came there as refugees during the 1948 war.
Demonstrations took place in the camp early in the current conflict, which began in the south with protests against President Bashar Assad’s rule in March 2011. In December 2012, rebels then referred to as members of the Free Syrian Army took over the camp from government forces.
Airstrikes and bombings by the government became almost a daily occurrence. Rival insurgent groups fought one another until 2015, when the Islamic State group took control of most of the camp after deadly clashes with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a faction linked to the Palestinian Hamas terror group.
A government siege of Yarmouk between 2013 and 2014 left up to 200 people dead of hunger-related illnesses and a lack of medical aid.
A picture taken during a UN food distribution mission in January 2014 showed thousands of desperate and gaunt-looking residents thronging a neighborhood street amid destroyed buildings on both sides as they waited for food handouts.
It became an iconic image reflecting the camp’s inhumane conditions and the suffering caused by the civil war.
One of the Abdul-Mahmoud sisters, Hana, 52, said people were on the verge of starvation in 2014 when the UN agency that deals with Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, brought in supplies — a box of food staples for each family.
“This box lasted a month. When we carried it home we felt as if we were at a wedding carrying a bride,” Hanan said.
The youngest, Amal, 45, said when they first ate bread after such a long time of going without, they had difficulty swallowing it, as they had become used to mostly eating soup.
The sisters’ life worsened in 2015 when IS took control and imposed their strict interpretation of Islam, warning the women to wear long black coats, cover their faces, and put on gloves or face an Islamic court.
The sisters conformed but refused to leave their home when the extremists asked them to because it was close to the frontline with government forces and pro-government Palestinian gunmen.
“Once they came and searched the house and our cellular telephones suspecting we were [Syrian] regime agents,” Izdihar said.
The sisters and a neighbor who lived through the camp’s siege, Imad Omar, 60, said IS fighters used to force teenagers and younger boys to attend their main school where they learned how to use weapons, and how to cut off heads by training on slitting the throats of dolls.
One of the men that they tried to recruit was camp resident Rami Ahmad, a 28-year-old tailor. When he refused he was detained and subjected to torture, including whipping with electric cables.
“I confessed to things I did not do,” the young man said, adding that he was later released and immediately fled to the nearby rebel-held suburb of Yalda. He returned to the camp in May, three years after leaving.
Living near the front line put the sisters close to the fighting but also spared them from airstrikes that leveled much of the Yarmouk camp. Most buildings where the family lives in Lod street, named after the mixed Arab-Jewish city in central Israel, are still intact as warplanes did not target them, apparently to avoid hitting nearby army positions by mistake.
A report released earlier this month by the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor titled “Yarmouk Camp, The Abandoned Pain,” said that the beginning of the crisis until June 2018, the number of Palestinian victims from Yarmouk refugee camp amounted to 1,392, most of whom died as a result of bombing, siege or torture to death in Syrian regime prisons
The report said that 80 percent of houses in the camp are “nearing complete destruction.” Entire buildings on both sides of the streets have been turned to piles of flattened debris.
On July 3, UNRWA’s Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl visited Yarmouk, becoming the first senior UN official in years to access the camp.
“Wherever one looks, the horror experienced by inhabitants of Yarmouk is all too evident,” he said.
On April 19, Syrian troops and pro-government Palestinian gunmen began an all-out campaign to retake the camp and end the extremists’ presence. After a month of intense fighting, the extremists agreed to leave the camp along with their families, to areas held by IS in eastern Syria.
During the visit by an Associated Press team, sporadic explosions could be heard in the camp as security experts detonated mines and boobytraps left behind by the extremists.
Hanan said the most emotional moment was when the sisters’ brother, Yasser, who lived a few miles away in the suburb of Jaramana, came to visit them after not seeing them for six years.
“I don’t know how these six years passed,” Izdihar said. “Sometimes we used to ask ourselves how are we living here?”