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Hungry for Bread in Yarmouk Camp

DAMASCUS — The tobacco seller at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp here is used to the daily pranks of 10-year-old resident Nidal.

Written by Celine Ahmad Published on Read time Approx. 2 minutes

Tricking people by imitating the sounds of mortar shells being dropped, he stands on his balcony and watches them run for cover or fall to the ground as they wait for nonexistent shells to hit.

Since the camp came under siege in December 2012 as part of the Syrian government’s offensive on Yarmouk and the southern areas of the capital, Nidal, restless, has resorted to pranks as a way to pass the time. In the process, he has become a master of imitation, faking the sounds of mortar as the tobacco seller and other adults admonish his behavior.

Living conditions in Yarmouk, already a functioning refugee camp before the conflict began in March 2011, are harsh. Food and water are scarce, and according to the U.N. Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA), shelling has forced 170,000 residents to leave since last year. Like others, Nidal’s family doesn’t have the money to leave.

UNRWA on Friday made a call for lifting the siege on Yarmouk—the largest Palestinian refugee camp in Syria—saying that 20,000 residents are trapped there and in dire need of aid.

The Violations Documentation Center, a Syrian watchdog NGO, says 1,671 people, including 217 children, have died from shelling in the area. One Syrian security official told Reuters in October that the tactic of preventing food and other critical supplies from entering various besieged areas in Syria is part of the “Starvation Until Submission Campaign,” designed to bring the rebellion to its knees.

Nidal has grown accustomed to a diet of lentils, which his mother cooks in lieu of bread. But they say their stock is close to running out. He recalls Um Hassan, a neighbor in her 50s who starved to death after she ran out of food, leaving her husband on his own.

Bread, which has sustained most Syrians through the last two years of fighting, is now running out. Nidal describes it as an unattainable dream and says he prays to God he’ll be able to have some soon.

Nidal remembers one day in November of last year when children in the camp gathered to get their hands on a rare batch of smuggled bread.

I wasn’t lucky enough to get any bread. So I stood by watching the others,” he says. “Some children cried with joy. Some asked for another piece because they weren’t able to savor its taste. There was a small girl, about four, and she started screaming at the top of her lungs, ‘Bread, finally, bread!’”

Nidal says he misses his schoolmates who have left, their fate unknown.

He continues his childish mischief, but with a rotating cast of new people. His child status enables him to speak of things even adults fear mentioning.

His mother says the Free Syrian Army’s Ibn Taymiyyah Brigade have vowed to take control of the municipality building that overlooks a fighting front near the camp, but so far they haven’t.

Every time brigade members pass through the camp, Nidal teases, “What happened to the municipality building?”

This article was translated from Arabic by Naziha Baassiri.

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