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Syrian conflict prevents UN aid from reaching starving Palestinian refugees

January 16, 2014 at 6:13 PM EST
Decades ago, thousands of Palestinian refugees fled to Damascus seeking safety, but today they confront starvation and death. Human rights activists attribute these casualties to the lack of food and medical supplies due to the Syrian war. Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News reports on thwarted efforts to deliver aid.
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GWEN IFILL: The Syrian government today allowed relief aid into two areas at the front line of the civil war. It appeared to be a goodwill gesture ahead of international peace talks next week in Switzerland. But there was also a military attack today outside a refugee camp where young and old alike are starving.

Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News has this report on their plight.

A warning: This story contains some graphic images.

LINDSEY HILSUM: They bombed Yarmouk today. The Syrian government is determined to force out the last rebels in southern Damascus. But there were 18,000 civilians in this area. A girl’s been injured. Can they get her to hospital?

After the dust has settled, the destruction is plain for all to see. Most of the people scrambling over what remains of Yarmouk aren’t even Syrians. They’re Palestinian refugees who fled to Damascus for safety decades ago.

The people of Yarmouk are desperate, forced to pick dandelion leaves to eat. Yarmouk has been besieged since last July, as the regime tries to starve the rebels and seemingly the people into submission. These next images are very distressing to watch. Shortly after these pictures were taken, activists say Alaa Al-Masri died of starvation.

Adults are skeletal too. Hunger means they can’t resist infections or underlying diseases. Such agony is no accident. It’s the result of the siege of Yarmouk.

In the last few days, several children have reportedly died of hunger. Activists filmed the funerals. Fifty people are said to have died from starvation or lack of medical care in recent months. Aid agencies say the people of Yarmouk urgently need food and medicine. They are prisoners. No one can get in or out.

MAN (through interpreter): If they put a dog in a cage, at least they would give him food and water. But we have nothing. We’re just waiting for a kind person to bring grass or wheat for the children.

LINDSEY HILSUM: He screams at the camera, “We have no money to pay for food. We have nothing to do with either side. We just want something to eat.”

Desperation is driving people over the edge. On Monday, six UN vehicles set off for Yarmouk with polio vaccines and food supplies. They’d negotiated access with the government, but the aid never made it through.

CHRIS GUNNESS, United Nations Relief and Works Agency: the government told us we had to use the southern entry into Yarmouk, which has very much forced us to go through rebel territory, territory where extreme jihadist groups operate.

We could have used the northern entrance to Yarmouk, which the government controls, but they wouldn’t allow us to do that, for their own reasons. So we took the southern route. When we got to the last government checkpoint, the bulldozer at the front of our convoy took a direct hit.

LINDSEY HILSUM: At dusk, the Palestinians of Yarmouk light fires. It’s another form of protests, smoke signals to the outside world, which seems neither to watch or listen.

GWEN IFILL: Next week, chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner will report from Switzerland on the latest round of international peace talks on Syria.

And right now on our World page, you can read how organizations like Save the Children and UNICEF are setting up kid-friendly spaces in countries like Syria which are caught up in natural disaster and conflict.