Yarmouk, in Damascus, was once home to more than a million Palestinian refugees
Years of civil war have left it in ruins -- many residents fled after their homes were flattened
U.N. believes thousands of civilians are still trapped there, but getting aid to them is difficult
Editor’s Note: What do you want to know about Syria? Frederik Pleitgen has just returned from Damascus and will answer your questions on Facebook at 11 a.m. New York / 4 p.m. London on Thursday.
As we walk through the dust-filled wasteland of this abandoned neighborhood, the silence only broken by the crunching sounds of our boots in the dirt, our guide stops.
“You must watch out,” he warns us. “There are snipers in the streets ahead.”
We continue down the path, towering piles of debris littering the streets in every direction. High-rise apartment buildings that once stretched towards the sky now lie in piles of concrete and twisted metal at our feet.
Between the blown-out walls you can make out what used to be living rooms and bedrooms. Dolls, posters, and broken mirrors, left behind by the people who once lived here, lay strewn amid the wreckage, blackened by the explosions that reduced this place to rubble.
With an American M16 rifle slung over his shoulder and a cigarette in his hand, this Palestinian pro-government fighter is leading us towards the front line in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus that epitomizes like nowhere else the brutal tragedy of Syria’s ongoing civil war.
Years of intense fighting between the Syrian regime and various rebel groups has left this once mostly-Palestinian area flattened. The soldier, a lawyer by profession who does not want to be identified, says the battles are intense.
“It is always difficult here,” he tells me, “because our enemies are not only from ISIS, but from Palestinian groups as well.”
“We are fighting each other even though we know each other, and they know this area. That is why it is difficult.”
Thousands trapped in an urban wasteland
Yarmouk was established by the Syrian government in 1957 to accommodate Palestinians fleeing the Arab-Israeli conflict. By the time the uprising in Syria started, in 2011, more than a million people lived here.
Some of the Palestinians joined rebel ranks and took over Yarmouk; others remained loyal to the government of President Bashar al-Assad. These are the main factions battling each other today; extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS have surfaced here as well.
The military and pro-regime Palestinian groups have laid siege to the area, devastating the civilians caught in the crossfire. People are starving to death, rights groups say, and the United Nations has found it nearly impossible at times to get supplies into Yarmouk to help those most in need.
“There are two kinds of civilians left inside,” the fighter says. “There are those who are worried about their houses and apartments or just too poor to flee. And then there those who are related to the opposition fighters.”
It is impossible to verify that, but the U.N. estimates that thousands are still trapped inside Yarmouk.
Ongoing battles and frequent power cuts have left these people without even the most basic supplies. And their lives took an even worse turn when ISIS invaded Yarmouk earlier this year, slaughtering people in the streets and instituting their signature brand of terror before withdrawing to other rebel-held areas in the Syrian capital.
But even with ISIS gone, the fighting in Yarmouk remains intense. It is the most brutal urban warfare, fought inch by inch, street to street.
These pro-government fighters keep a flock of geese on the front lines to warn of anyone trying to mount a surprise attack. Snipers keep a look-out on the top floors of the buildings that haven’t crumbled, hanging tarpaulins in windows without glass to make sure rebel snipers never get a clear view.
Despite the daily battles, the front line has barely moved in months. Small gains are the rule – fighters might win a few buildings here and there, only to lose a few others somewhere else.
Still, these fighters are convinced that progress is being made.
“We believe and we are very sure that we will get all of Yarmouk back and very soon,” the Palestinian fighter says.
But victory – whatever that means at this point – or even substantial gains remain elusive for either side.
And even if these pro-regime fighters do prevail, their prize will consist mostly of ruins.