The Two-Way
10:59 am
Tue December 18, 2012

Latest Syrian Fighting Touches Off A New Exodus

NPR is not identifying the author, a Syrian citizen, for security reasons.

Daily fighting in Syria has become so commonplace that it often merits little attention. But recent Syrian air strikes against Yarmouk, a densely populated area outside the capital Damascus, touched off an exodus of residents and demonstrated the ripple effects of the violence.

The Syrian military attacked the area with fighter jets on Sunday, saying it was in response to infiltrations by "terrorists," the blanket term the Syrian regime uses for all the rebels.

A mosque and a school were among the buildings struck in this raid, according to residents. Both buildings were housing people displaced by earlier violence.

After the assault, the Syrian government forces told people to evacuate the area. Residents say government troops went around in cars with loud speakers, giving instructions for people to leave their homes immediately.

Thousands obliged. This footage posted on Youtube by an activist shows residents carrying suitcases as they walk down the street to leave the area. Cars with mattresses tied to their roofs are also headed out. One small pickup truck had about a dozen women, standing room only, in the back.

Yarmouk is a middle and working class neighborhood about a 25-minute drive from central Damascus. It is commonly referred to as "the Camp," because it has been home to a large population of Palestinian refugees since the 1950s. At last count, there were over 100,000 registered Palestinian refugees.

Over the decades, it also became home to many Syrians, including those displaced from the Golan Heights in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Where To Flee?

As the residents fled, they faced limited choices. More than 2,000 have gone to Lebanon, according to media reports.

Damascus is close by, but almost every household is hosting relatives displaced from somewhere else. And almost every household is also involved in some sort of informal charity ring.

Sameer, for example, was displaced last summer from a Damascus suburb, and he and his wife currently live with her parents near central Damascus.

A personal trainer, Sameer has formed a charity group composed mainly of clients and friends. They rely on a network through various mosques to identify families in need.

"We make lists of what people need. How many blankets? Women's winter coats? Children's shoes?" he said. "We then each pool together donations from our circles, and we get the stuff and distribute it."

This week, they will focus on the people from Yarmouk, he said. "It's very sad, but our work never ends," he added.

Asked if he seeks any help from the government, he echoed a common sentiment.

"It's better for them not to know what we're doing," he said.

The Syrian security apparatus has been known to arrest, and sometimes torture, activists who provide humanitarian aid near areas suspected of harboring rebels. Cars filled with humanitarian supplies can become targets for interrogation and theft at checkpoints.

One activist was arrested for transporting schoolbooks meant for newly displaced families. The families had settled near a rebel-held area, so the activist was accused of aiding rebels.

Particularly contentious are medical supplies, which raise suspicions that they might be for injured rebels.

Among those displaced from Yarmouk this week were families who had only recently fled their homes elsewhere for the relative calm of Yarmouk.

Um Hassan, a grandmother, is one such example. Late last summer, she hosted her daughter and son-in-law and their two small children in her modest home in Husseiniyeh, just outside of the Shia stronghold town of Sit Zeinab on the outskirts of Damascus.

But the rebels soon arrived in her neighborhood, and the government launched a "cleansing campaign," bombarding Um Hassan's area with tank fire and mortar shells.

After sticking it out for days, Um Hassan and her daughter's family finally fled. Together they rented a one-bedroom in Yarmouk.

On Monday, Um Hassan packed her belongings again. This time, she headed to her brother's home in a troubled area near the Damascus International Airport, the scene of heavy fighting recently. Her daughter's family, along with their school aged children, went to the in-laws. It was their fourth flight from home in less than six months.

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