“Kneel or Starve” On the use of siege and starvation as a method of warfare in South Damascus 

  1. With the support of interviews, and witness statements taken for the purpose of investigating alleged war crimes, and supported by prior documentation, this report analyses the use of siege and starvation against the civilian population in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk and the besieged South of Damascus from early 2013 until March 2014, when the siege was partially lifted. It details the incremental worsening of conditions of life under siege and its direct impact on civilians, with a view to support possible future investigations and accountability efforts with a more robust understanding of the siege and starvation in this area.
  2. On 16 December 2012, a Syrian regime warplane carried out raids targeting civilian objects in Yarmouk, including a hospital, four schools (two of which were acting as shelter facilities for displaced people), and the Abd Al-Qader Al-Husseini mosque. The raids led to a reported 140,000 individuals fleeing Yarmouk and constituted what is commonly understood as the start of the siege of Yarmouk and South Damascus.1 
  3. The South of Damascus was initially partially sealed off through the establishment and/ or upholding of checkpoints surrounding the area, such as the Rejeh checkpoint at the Northern entrance of Yarmouk, the Sbeneh checkpoint, the Babbila/Sidi Muqdad checkpoint, and an additional checkpoint around Husseiniyeh/Aqraba.2 
  4. In early 2013, the checkpoints started to limit freedom of movement in and out of South Damascus. Initially, only few (mostly women and the elderly) were able to cross in and out of the besieged South Damascus. A limited amount of foodstuff was allowed to enter South Damascus through the checkpoints during this period, but not enough to meet the needs of the local communities. Cases of arbitrary arrests and/or enforced disappearance at the checkpoints were reported during this period.3 
  5. In or around April 2013, the Syrian regime cut the main electricity power supply to South Damascus, thereby forcing besieged locals to rely on generators, which were costly to run and limited their capacity to meet daily needs. The lack of sufficient power supply directly affected the functioning of the few medical facilities available in the besieged area, especially in light of the continuous flow of casualties from government snipers, bombing and shelling, and attrition.4 
  6. Access in and out of the area was fully sealed off in July 2013. The siege was upheld through checkpoints armed with snipers preventing locals from approaching, as well as military frontlines experiencing active hostilities. This period is commonly referred to as the phase of full, or “suffocating,” siege (“الحصــار الخانــق”) by locals and research participants.5 Research participants detailed that the period of “suffocating siege” was accompanied by continuous bombing and the targeting of hospitals, findings supported by the Amnesty report on the siege of Yarmouk.6 Civilians injured as a result of the bombing therefore found themselves unable to access necessary medical support due to the region’s decimated medical infrastructure and the slim availability of medicine and medical supplies.
  1. The groups that upheld the siege of South Damascus included armed factions likely working directly or indirectly for or in collaboration with the Syrian regime on the northern border of the siege, as well as its eastern and southern border. The Rejeh checkpoint at the northern entrance of Yarmouk was controlled by two local Palestinian factions, the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (hereinafter “PFLP- GC”) under the command of Ahmad Jibril, and the Free Palestine Movement (hereinafter “FPM”), under the command of Yasser Qashlaq, as confirmed recently by a German court in the ruling on the commission of war crimes at a checkpoint upholding the siege.7 The ruling also found strong suspicions of these militia’s collaboration with Syrian intelligence’s Palestine Branch.8 Interviews with research participants in addition to other resources indicate that the outer borders of Babbila, Beit Sahem, and Yalda (towards Sayyeda Zainab) were likely under the control of local Shiite militias allegedly working in collaboration with regime forces but not directly under their command.9 
  2. 8. According to Amnesty International, the first reported case of death due to malnutrition resulting from the siege in Yarmouk took place in August 2013.10 Death as a result of malnutrition then became increasingly common between October 2013 and January 2014.11 Amnesty International documented that 194 people were reported dead in Yarmouk alone between the tightening of the siege between July 2013 and February 2014.12 The three main causes of death listed were starvation, lack of adequate medical care and shooting by snipers.13 In Yarmouk, the effects of the siege were exacerbated by the neighbourhood’s residential nature, increasing its vulnerability as opposed to other impacted towns that could maintain access to agricultural land or facilities.14 However, the situation worsened in the entire besieged area by the start of winter due to the low availability of agricultural goods at that time of the year.15 In the towns with access to agricultural land, snipers at times targeted farmers as well as other civilians searching for something to eat.
  1. The siege began in January 2014, when local agreements were reached to allow foodstuffs to enter each town or group of towns. The groups of locals working on developing such agreements with the Syrian regime were known as reconciliation committees, whose initial aim was to open humanitarian crossings to enable civilians to leave the besieged South of Damascus. The towns of Babbila, Beit Sahem, and Yalda were able to secure an agreement in January 2014, enabling the entry of limited foodstuff. Yarmouk secured a separate agreement in January 2014, which later enabled locals suffering from health problems to access healthcare outside the besieged area and permitted the entry of limited amounts of UNRWA food boxes.17 Interviews reflect that food was not available in large enough quantities to meet the needs of besieged locals until March 2014, however. 
  2. Furthermore, the implementation of these agreements was marked by several alleged mass killings and other instances of violence against civilians that were reported to take place at the checkpoints and frontlines upholding the siege prior to the reconciliation agreements, in the context of the ongoing negotiations to open humanitarian corridors for besieged civilians. 
  3. The events at stake in the case of Moafak D. took place on 23 March 2014, during the distribution of humanitarian aid (UNRWA humanitarian parcels) to civilians at the Rejeh checkpoint at the northern entrance of Yarmouk. The defendant was convicted of four counts of murder as a war crime and two counts of attempted murder as a war crime, by intentionally firing a grenade into a group of civilians queuing for aid parcels. The German ruling is significant beyond his conviction in also confirming the responsibility of Palestinian factions associated with the Syrian government in upholding the siege of Yarmouk, and noting the Syrian regime’s greater policy of siege during this time.
    Picture: Taleb AdAoud