Yarmouk Anniversary: Nakbas New and Old

“We’ve turned into a story, a tale people tell.”

— from Elias Khoury’s White Masks.

 Kil sinneh w’intu tayibeen! East Aleppo fell and there were Christmas celebrations on the other side of the city. The new year is here; a new year in which Eastern Ghouta and Idlib and Babila and Wadi Barada are next.

But December marked another anniversary, too; one that, this year was marked silently and without candle-lit vigils, remembered in homes real and imagined in Lubiyeh Street and Tareeq al-Falasteen, in Yalda and Babila and Beit Sahem, and in housing estates in little German towns or inside Swedish asylum housing wrapped-up in blankets and long-delayed residency applications.

On December 16, 2012, a Syrian Air Force MiG jet bombarded Yarmouk camp, an unofficial Palestinian camp/community that’d been home to between 150,000 and 200,000 Palestinian refugees before the uprising broke out. The MiG’s rockets hit a mosque, a school and a hospital, killing more than 40 people. It is an event often referred to by Palestinian-Syrians in terms of nakba (catastrophe) — either as a repeat, continuation or intensification of the Palestinian people’s exile without horizon that began in 1948 — even if not everyone agrees on the cause of that catastrophe.

The culmination of nearly two years of creeping militarization and co-option in the Syrian capital’s southern suburbs, December 16, 2012 preceded the first mass displacement of Palestinian-Syrians from Yarmouk. Rebels entered the camp the very next day, thereby confirming that Yarmouk, already under regime bombardment, had become an active battlefield in the fight for Damascus. The regime responded by imposing one of the Syrian conflict’s earliest sieges — and still one of its most savage. Between 2013-2014, up to 190 civilians died as a result of starvation or lack of access to medical and life-saving supplies caused by the strangling siege.

Today, the few Palestinian-Syrian families still inside Yarmouk face dire humanitarian conditions while government-allied forces, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and the Islamic State battle over the camp’s remains. The Syrian government is now negotiating for truce-evacuation-surrender deals in several south Damascus districts neighbouring Yarmouk, meaning the future of the camp is currently in the balance.

If “what is Aleppo?” then what is Yarmouk?

Pro-regime voices claim that Yarmouk was “invaded” by rebels as some kind of until-then-unthinkable development, which is either incredibly naive or just politically motivated given the direction of events between 2011-2012. Government attacks on Palestinian communities outside Yarmouk (as in Lathaqia and Homs) invited protests and condemnation, as did rebel abuses and assassinations of members of the government-affiliated Palestine Liberation Army (PLA) manned, through conscription, by the descendants of 1948 refugees. Two marches on the Israeli border to mark Palestinian nationals day led to clashes with the Israeli army and several Palestinian dead. Those deaths, in turn, invited protests back in Damascus. According to some accounts, people felt they’d been used by the regime.

The regime wanted to keep Yarmouk on-side, not least as other areas of south Damascus fell to the rebels. Through 2011-2012, allies of Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC) leader Ahmad Jibril began distributing weapons inside Yarmouk in an attempt to keep control of the camp and intimidate residents into support for the government. This effectively annulled a neutrality agreement between different Palestinian factions and set in motion the militarization of the camp.

At the same time, rebel groups were also trying to politick their way inside Yarmouk, in some cases by planning car bomb attacks, and through tentative meetings with activists and community figures from the camp.

The creation of armed pro-government lijaan as-sha’abiyeh (popular committees), meanwhile, that clashed with the FSA on the very frontiers of the camp, basically invited confrontation inside it given the direction of events at the time.

Unsurprisingly enough, the "rebel invasion” is the favoured regime narrative reiterated by the faithful journalists of the muqawme. In service of this narrative, December 16 is either down-played as some minor precursor to something else (as in this Electronic Intifada article), or simply omitted altogether (as in this Russia Today report). The RT author recounts a “black-and-white” story gleaned from pro-government Palestinian fighters in Yarmouk: “Thousands of Islamist fighters invaded and occupied Yarmouk on December 17, 2012, and Palestinians and Syrians alike fled the camp, literally beginning the next day.”

Remembering and restating honest, faithful histories of Syria’s post-2011 uprising has become a kind of subversive act, one that everyone — journalists, activists, civil society organizations and members of the public — must engage in. Syria’s post-2011 history is diverse, contentious and alive; and continues to be preserved in books and activist testimonies and oral histories and photographs and YouTube videos and documentaries. At the same time, an apparently growing number of people appear to be believe that Bashar al-Assad’s narrative since 2011 — mundiseen and Al-Qaeda — becomes truer each time a rebel-held territory accepts truce terms.

In Aleppo too, pro-regime “truth” was presented as absolute and for two reasons: one, because it was spoken by the right people, or at least not the wrong ones; and secondly, its details were not present in mainstream media (for short: MSM) and were therefore, by that very virtue, true. 

And yet people are trying to impose a single, immovable truth on Syria that is styled on the regime’s chief military tactic — siege. It is the same kind of Baathist postmodernism as when Assad’s presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban told British Channel 4 News, “Your reports are irrelevant to our reality”; the same kind of argument pushed by pseudo-journalists, propagandists and conspiracy theorists who have, to a shocking extent, gained a shocking level of traction online recently.

Even when pro-regime journalists claim to do actual journalism, perhaps by visiting Syria for example, Syria's on-the-ground realities are only ever portrayed as a binary between regime and terrorist.

The truth has become a contraband currency smuggled from the besieged — and pro-regime voices, triumphant in apparent victory, helped besiege it. Outside, facts are destabilized, like ceasefires and underground hospitals. Through their collective punishment, the besieged are rendered suspicious; as when Palestine Liberation Organization’s Ahmad al-Majdalani said of Palestinian refugees and Syrian IDPs until recently besieged inside Khan Eshieh that, “If there [are] no insurgents then why is the camp besieged?” Truth is irrelevant because the siege has its own logic, justifying its own existence until the green buses arrive.

The siege controls what goods come in and out, who comes and who goes; who lives, who dies.

But increasingly, it decides what is true and what is not.