The Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Damascus has seen some of the most desperate fighting and
sieges of the Syrian war. Under siege themselves by the Syrian regime and watching the latest round of violence in the Gaza Strip, Syrian-Palestinians are caught up in two simultaneous conflicts.
No, a Syrian-Palestinian does not remember Gaza as much as you’d think. Maybe sometimes women pray for Gaza, or men sigh to avoid crying in public, but deep down inside us Syrian-Palestinians, there is something more urgent. It is shameful, but what can a victim do for another victim? And what could a corpse-to-be offer another corpse-to-be? Empathy and solidarity do not fit our purpose here. We Palestinians have had enough of that.
How can we remember Gaza? How can my aunt in Yarmouk remember it when she hasn’t had electricity for a year to know it’s in the news? My aunt Um Rami, put her husband’s car up for sale after he left Yarmouk. Her husband was a taxi driver and that car used to earn their living. The car didn’t sell. It was a bit too expensive for buyers. She asked for a whole kilo of rice as its price. No one would negotiate the price even if she sold it for half a kilo. This car’s price outside the camp is 800,000 Syrian pounds ($5000), and rice kilo’s price inside the besieged Yarmouk camp is 4,000 Syrian pounds ($25). Yarmouk has been besieged for a year and a half, and my aunt’s children had to stay hungry for a while. Gaza’s news is no longer accessible.
And yet, here are still some of us who find time for Gaza. Abou Ahmed, a man in his 70s, had to leave Yarmouk Camp after the siege got tight. He remembers Gaza daily, and follows its news and the rockets that fall on it. Abou Ahmed’s daughter, Hiba, lives there. Her husband decided to flee Syria to his homeland, taking her and their four children. But where in Gaza? Shajaia or Beit Lahia? Abou Ahmed does not know exactly where his daughter lives, so he switches channels hoping not to hear her name. This man, who has lived through all Palestinian battles, calls her number every now and then hoping she answers, but the only electricity generator over there is bombed, and no networks are working. That’s what he told me while he lit another cigarette.
Even though we are busy, we know what the Gazan people are going through. There’s an ongoing comparison between us, the refugees of ‘48, and them. We see their dead bodies and ours and think: Who suffered more deaths? Whose corpses were more distorted? Who knows the bombs better? They buried their bodies in public parks; so did we. They slept hungry, and we starved to death. They think of Rafah passage as heaven’s door, and whenever it opens they can get some food. We have “Batikha” passage, where some bread hangs right beside the sniper who’s protecting loaves from our mouths. They lived under siege; we do too. It killed us sometimes and we killed it some other times. Just like them, our children were born under siege, so in the end our numbers did not decrease that much.
When we hear that Al Shougaia neighbourhood has been erased, we can’t help but think of Al Nayrab camp in Aleppo, which was also erased by armed groups. The Palestinian refugees who lived in Al Nayrab had to leave their camp to another place, but few are the places that would take them.
Even if you understand the Nayrab camp incident, you surely won’t understand what the anchor is saying on the official Syrian TV channel. You may even hate Gaza when you know that they claim to support Gaza while they besiege Yarmouk, a camp that is not that far from the Official Radio and TV building. The TV is crying for Gaza’s children, is condemning the war against it, and broadcasts the aircrafts that are raiding it, forgetting all the MiG aircrafts raiding Yarmouk camp at that very moment, killing another 20 children.
What you’d never understand is how Ahmed Jibril¹ can issue a statement saying that his forces carried out an operation in Gaza! Aren’t they busy besieging Yarmouk? Aren’t you the one besieging the loaf? Haven’t you stopped food from entering more than a thousand times?
When protests were still possible in Syria, Palestinian-Syrians joined in and shouted for Syria’s freedom. We ran away from security forces, we were detained and tortured. Others believed the government’s propaganda about conspiracies and supported the regime. We never felt that we weren’t Syrians, and when the Syrian government decided to open the Syrian-Isareli borders on the anniversary of Palestine’s occupation, we went running to Gaza and Haifa and Nablus, we ran to Tabaraya, Jerusalem and beit Lahm. We crossed the borders and fell dead.² Yet the next day we were burying our dead in Yarmouk. When a funeral was possible here, Ahmed Jibril’s forces, who are supporting Gaza now, killed us. We buried the dead and kept on dreaming of Palestine.
We used to protest for Gaza and Dafa in Yarmouk camp. On Jerusalem day, Palestinian exodus³, The Six-Day War*, we burnt tires and shouted all kinds of revolutionary slogans. We carried Yasser Arafat’s** photos even in those days when the Syrian authorities considered him a traitor and would detain his followers. We saluted Hamas and other movements, we shouted out against Oslo.*** We dreamt of our return and drew our dreams on Yarmouk walls. We never thought that it would be replaced with other revolution’s slogans. We never knew that Yarmouk’s walls would suffer with us, or fall on our heads to kill and die with us. We most certainly didn’t know that coming back would become a promise we made to ourselves – not to return to Palestine, but to a camp that has become a distant dream for the many Palestinians who were forced to leave their camp.
¹The leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine who’s known to be pro-Assad
²On the 5th of June 2011, the Syrian regime with the help of Palestinian Front made an unprecedented action which was mobilizing some enthusiastic youth to the Syrian-Israeli borders, where they were told they can cross through the minefield (which turned out to have no mines). Israeli soldiers opened their fire on the young men and women who tried to cross the borders on that day
³Known in Arabic as the Nakba (or, tragedy), more than 700,000 Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes, during the 1947–1948 Civil War in Mandatory Palestine and the 1948 Arab–Israeli War.
*Third Arab–Israeli War when Israeli forces had taken control of the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula from Egypt, the West Bank and East Jerusalem, from Jordan, and the Golan Heights from Syria.
**Former Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, President of the Palestinian National Authority, and leader of the Fatah political party
***The Declaration of Principles on Interim Self-Government Arrangements in Oslo was an attempt in 1993 to set up a framework that would lead to the resolution of the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian conflict.