Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, a once-busy district, is now a ghost town heaped with rubble and mangled steel rods. Here’s how Palestinian refugees are living through Syria’s war.
After years of multi-party fighting, crippling sieges, bombardment and starvation, what was once the largest settlement of displaced Palestinians in Syria — Yarmouk refugee camp, in southern Damascus — has been reduced to debris.
Why is the camp important?
Some 100,000 Palestinians fled to Syria after being expelled from Palestine, following the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Founded in 1957 with just some tents, Yarmouk soon became home for Palestinians. Buildings went up soon after, replacing tents.
The refugee camp grew into a bustling neighbourhood, home to some 160,000 Palestinians, as well as Syrians, before Syria's war broke out in 2011.
"Yarmouk was home to almost 30 percent of the Palestine refugee population in Syria before they were displaced," said Chris Gunness, from UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.
The size of the refugee camp is equal to the area of more than 1,300 football pitches.
How has war impacted Yarmouk?
The camp has been the site of several clashes and sieges since 2012, when the Syrian regime and opposition fighters, including Palestinians, fought. Nearly 140,000 residents fled the area.
The camp was under siege by the regime for nearly two years, depriving some 18,000 residents of food and other necessities.
Daesh militants entered the area in 2015, drawing more attacks from the regime and bringing further suffering to the remaining residents.
After an offensive against Daesh this May, the Syrian regime and allied forces retook the neighbourhood.
How many Palestinians remain in Yarmouk?
Now, only a few dozen families live amid the bombed-out buildings.
At least 3,500 Palestinian refugees from the camp took shelter in the nearby town of Yalda in April, according to UNRWA and a resident who confirmed the figure.
The numbers vary, but UNRWA estimates that a total of 120,000 Palestine refugees have left Syria for neighbouring countries, and beyond, since 2011.
War by the numbers
Close to 400,000 people have been killed since Syria's multi-faceted war erupted in 2011.
And the Palestinians have not been spared. At least 3,896 refugees have been killed, 1,697 detained and 315 are missing, according to London-based human rights watchdog Action Group for Palestinians of Syria.
Problems faced by refugees
Those who stayed in Yarmouk continue to face severe shortages of safe water, food and medicine.
Throughout 2014, residents of Yarmouk were forced to live on around 400 calories of food aid a day, which is less than a fifth of the UN’s recommended daily amount of 2,100 calories for civilians in war zones, reported the Guardian in 2015.
Many families live without proper shelter and in unsafe conditions.
The camp's water and electricity supply, communications and other infrastructure have also been badly damaged, failing to meet the basic needs of the refugees.
What is the next step?
In September, bulldozers started to clear Yarmouk's main roads of rubble, with funding from the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). Another two months are needed to finish clearing side streets.
Mahmud Khaled, who manages the rubble clearing project in the camp, said 40 percent of the buildings there were seriously damaged.
Plans to return?
The Syrian regime created a plan for the return of Palestinians to the camp.
In an interview with Beirut-based broadcaster Al-Mayadeen, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Meqdad said there was a "plan for the return of all refugees to the camp".
However, he did not specify how or when residents would start coming back.
On the record quote about the Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria: pic.twitter.com/swttiWhMvp— Chris Gunness (@ChrisGunness) November 7, 2018
In July, the regime tasked the ministry of works to draw up new plans for Yarmouk, as well as other Damascus suburbs retaken from opposition fighters, rebels and militants, sparking fears that the camp could fall under a controversial new law for redevelopment.
Under this law, if their land is part of a new development, owners inevitably lose their property but can apply for compensation if they can prove ownership.
Individual Palestinians and Syrians own property within 80 percent of Yarmouk camp. The remainder is owned by the regime and managed by its authority for Palestinian affairs.
What about security challenges?
For now, Palestinian officials say the regime has assured them that Yarmouk is no longer under threat.
"Efforts are being made to clear (the camp) of mines left by... Daesh," Meqdad said.
Damascus wanted to dispel any "rumours" that Palestinians had been displaced, he added.
What can the UN to do?
UNRWA has said its 23 premises in the camp, including 16 schools, are damaged, but it would not fix any unless the regime officially allowed residents to return.
UN and Palestinian officials have criticised Damascus for not giving the go-ahead for reconstruction plans or officially allowing residents to return.
Meqdad said the Syrian regime would not object to a "role for the Palestinian Authority or UNRWA in rebuilding the camp".