U.N. Official Calls Situation At Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Beyond Inhumane' A siege by the self-proclaimed Islamic State has left nearly 18,000 people trapped in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria.
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U.N. Official Calls Situation At Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Beyond Inhumane'

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U.N. Official Calls Situation At Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Beyond Inhumane'

U.N. Official Calls Situation At Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Beyond Inhumane'

U.N. Official Calls Situation At Yarmouk Refugee Camp 'Beyond Inhumane'

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A siege by the self-proclaimed Islamic State has left nearly 18,000 people trapped in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria. NPR's Melissa Block interviews Christopher Gunness of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East about the humanitarian crisis there.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

In Syria it's estimated 18,000 civilians are in desperate condition, trapped without food and water, as the self-proclaimed Islamic State has invaded a Palestinian refugee camp on the edge of the capital. A United Nations official calls the situation beyond inhumane. He is Christopher Gunness with the U.N. agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. He's based in Jerusalem and he joins me now.

Welcome to the program.

CHRISTOPHER GUNNESS: Thank you very much, Melissa.

BLOCK: And what's the latest you've heard about the siege of the Yarmouk refugee camp?

GUNNESS: Yarmouk is a place which has descended even further into unimaginable levels of inhumanity. What we're facing right now this hour is nothing short of a potential slaughter of the innocents, with 3,500 children at immediate risk, which is why we're saying - UNRWA, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for which I'm a spokesperson - that there must be a pause, there must be humanitarian access. And those people who wish to leave - the elderly, the sick, the children, the women, the dying - must be allowed to leave.

BLOCK: It's worth pointing out that before this latest assault by the Islamic State forces, that Yarmouk had been under siege by Syrian government forces for two years. What were the conditions like before this latest assault by ISIS?

GUNNESS: They were already appalling. This was a community where women were dying in childbirth for lack of medicines and children were dying of malnutrition. It was a hellhole even before ISIS arrived. We have had almost no access, very, very little. So at the moment there's no U.N. food, there's no U.N. water, there's no U.N. medicines. There's very little electricity. Life is unimaginably harsh.

BLOCK: If both the Islamic State and the Assad regime have been fighting over this camp, who are they fighting, exactly?

GUNNESS: Well, there are Palestinian groups inside the camp who are attempting to defend the Palestinians who are there. The government narrative, of course, is that terrorists who are trying to tear the country to pieces have infiltrated the camps and therefore there has to be a war against them. I'm not buying into either narrative. UNRWA is remaining neutral. What we need to do as a neutral humanitarian organization is to get in on the ground so that we can evacuate those civilians.

BLOCK: Christopher, I think when we say refugee camp, we have images of a massive tent city. But Yarmouk is not that. I've seen images that show city blocks, apartment buildings that have been leveled, destroyed by the fighting. What is the history of Yarmouk and the Palestinians who call it home?

GUNNESS: The Palestinians who are there are descendants of those who fled the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Most of those came from the north of Palestine and fled to Damascus. The camp itself was not established until 1958, when there were very rudimentary homes. But over the years, over the decades, that's been built up and there are now eight-to-10-story buildings. It's the thriving suburb of Damascus. And to be quite frank, it was the Notting Hill of Damascus. It was the heartland of the Palestinian community in Syria.

BLOCK: You mentioned the U.N.'s call for a pause in the fighting so that civilians can get out of Yarmouk. Has there been any movement to make that happen?

GUNNESS: Well, actually, there has. And it's not been very widely reported, but we have seen 94 people - civilians - who were able to be evacuated the camp about a day ago. What we say is, if you can evacuate 94 people you can evacuate 194. And if you can evacuate 194 you can evacuate more. It is not beyond the wit of man to have these people evacuated. We need concerted, unified political pressure on the parties to build on the evacuations we've already seen.

BLOCK: Christopher Gunness, thanks very much for talking with us.

GUNNESS: My pleasure.

BLOCK: Christopher Gunness is spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.

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