Syria's Palestinian community caught in the cross-fire


THE ENTRANCE to Yarmouk is marked by a roundabout decorated with a curious ball sculpture and a burnt-out police station, protected by armed guards and fenced off with tape.

Jamil, a Palestinian student, meets us at the corner of Yarmouk Street, one of the two main thoroughfares. At the entrance to the other, nearby Palestine Street, is an arch, the smiling face of the late Palestinian president Yasser Arafat at its centre.

Yarmouk began as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1948 and has grown into a city of a million, with only 144,000 Palestinian residents. The rest have come from all over Syria.

Pieces of thick glass from the window of the pharmacy at the top of Yarmouk street litter the sidewalk and the display of medications and shampoos.

“A bullet pierced the metal shutter during clashes,” says the white-coated pharmacist. He can apply to a government office for compensation. His shop is one of the few open.

On closed and padlocked metal shutters spray-painted graffiti read: “Strike or burn”, “Freedom”, and, on one, “Down with pigs”, an insult directed at the government. Here and there the slogans have been crossed out.

“The shops closed for six days and then reopened,” says Jamil. “Owners have to work or they cannot pay rent or feed their families. They will open at noon.” The day begins late during the fasting month of Ramadan.

“The Free Syrian Army is not accepted here,” he adds, explaining that Palestinians refuse to be drawn into the fight between Syrians, although some sympathise with those protesting against the government. Jamil’s own family is divided. His mother is the revolutionary.

A street-sweeper makes neat piles of rubbish along the curb in the expectation that the garbage lorries will at last collect the piles of stinking, fly- and rat-infested refuse that has accumulated over the past 18 days.

Outside the Palestinian Liberation Army hospital, we meet Ibrahim, an ambulance driver whose family originally came from Nazareth.

“During the clashes I had to pick up 21, maybe 22 people in the street. Three were dead and the rest wounded. It is dangerous work, my ambulance was shot by a sniper up there,” he points to a building across the street. “Now it’s quiet. But we never know what will happen after one hour or two.”

We pass two mosques where there were anti-government demonstrations several months ago, and make our way to the UN-run Palestinian elementary school – named for Qastel in Palestine – with a broad tiled courtyard and blue arched metal roofing. Some 350 refugees from neighbouring areas are camped out here. At the height of the clashes there were 750; the majority have gone home. While the UN provides some assistance, most comes from a local Palestinian organisation, although the refugees are mainly Syrians.

No interviews are allowed without UN permission, the guard says.

Soldiers in uniform are checking identity documents and merchandise in lorries at the corner of the street that forms the border between Yarmouk and the Hajar al-Aswad district, where fighting erupted on Monday. Broken glass is scattered on the ground and there are bullet-holes in the walls of some houses but no major damage has been inflicted.

“There is shooting and bombing at night,” says Jamil.

On the main street, shops are open and traffic is stalled behind a huge lorry. We get a taxi and make for central Damascus – 15 minutes away from one of the constantly changing frontlines in the struggle for Syria.