Damascus (AsiaNews) – "It is a disgrace that people are waking up to only now, that we are talking about only after the Islamic state (IS) group entered the area, even though people have been living with hunger and hardships for a long time. The tragedy was there for all to see,” said Mgr Mario Zenari, apostolic nuncio to Syria.
As things went from bad to worse, several international agencies sounded the alarm. Recently, a UN official called the situation "beyond inhumane".
Under siege for the past two years, the camp has been surviving without water, food or drugs. At least 3,500 children have been trapped, hungry and thirsty.
For UNICEF, the UN body that provides long-term humanitarian and developmental assistance to children and mothers, Yarmouk is another Srebrenica.
Since 1 April, the IS group has been in control of part of the camp (up to 80 per cent according to some sources), fighting government forces.
Often described as a "moderate Syrian opposition” in the West, the al-Nusra Front, which is linked to al-Qaeda, has been helping IS fighters jihadists.
For their part, anti-regime Palestinian fighters and members of the Free Syrian Army have been resisting IS forces.
According to several analysts, the seizure of the camp just 8 km from the capital is a stepping-stone for an attack on Damascus. At the same time, refugees are being used as human shields against shelling by the government forces.
Despite the paucity of information, the death toll has reached at least a thousand. Scores of heads have been stuck on poles and railings. Even the imam from the local mosques, who is close to Hamas, was accused of apostasy and beheaded.
Inside the Palestinian refugee camp, the Islamists seized several buildings and offices.
Some witnesses said that many of IS fighters are locals who pledge allegiance to the jihadist group, not outsiders.
Speaking to AsiaNews about the unfolding humanitarian disaster in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, on the outskirts of Damascus, Mgr Zenari does not mince his words.
“Poor civilians have paid the price of factional fighting,” the apostolic nuncio in Damascus told AsiaNews. “I can hear planes and jet fighters take off,” he added.
Although the authorities in Damascus "are studying the situation, what is certain is that these people cannot be left captive".
“Although no one was talking about it, the situation had been very serious for some time,” the nuncio explained, “beyond inhumane, the UN called it, but there are no adequate words to describe the conditions of these people.”
“One is struck by the decades of silence that surrounded these Palestinians, the most mistreated group in the country,” Zenari noted.
“Wandering from place to place for decades, they have suffered the most from an already tragic situation. In Syria, ISIS, the al-Nusra Front and Palestinian armed factions have fought on the back of these poor people, children . . . It is awful!”
“Although chances of getting in or out [of the Yarmouk camp] were always limited, I tried to keep informed to see if it was possible to do something. In the end, it was impossible to get inside,” said Mgr Zenari.
“At Christmas in 2013, I got some money from Palestinian Christian schools for their suffering brothers. I worked hard to do get aid to its destination, but it was not easy. In the past, it was very risky to venture near the camp. Now, the area is off-limits.”
“Little food gets in,” with the situation made worse by the lack of drugs and heating oil, this during a "particularly cold winter, with snow falling on Damascus," the apostolic nuncio said.
"The international community woke up late. The tragedy unfolded under a cloak of silence and indifference,” he bemoaned.
The situation is also very critical in other parts of the country, including Aleppo. “The Christian Quarter was “shelled recently”. So was Homs, said the Vatican diplomat. "I was there just a few days ago to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Fr Frans” Van of Lugt.
"The situation is serious not only in Syria but throughout the region,” Mgr Zenari added. “Just think about what is happening in Iraq, Yemen . . . It is the Middle East that is burning.” (DS)
In Aleppo, up to two-thirds of the Christian population has left the city, about half has left the rest of the country. Jobs must be provided for those who remain, education to their children, and "spiritual support" so that they can continue the mission of "bearing witnesses to Christ" in a Muslim-majority country. Next week, the cardinal will meet with the pope.