Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World. War is Hell. It's easy to make a statement like that from a safe distance, but some of the images coming out of Syria clearly back those words up. I recently saw a BBC video report from Syria that was especially haunting. The place was a Palestinian refugee camp just outside Damascus and what you see is an endless sea of gaunt and grim faces desperate for food, cramped between bombed up buildings and huge piles of rubble. The report was by the BBC's Lyse Doucet and we're going to hear from her in a moment.
First, some quick facts. This area of Yarmouk was first built as a refugee camp for Palestinians fleeing the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Over the years it became a more permanent neighborhood. Now though, it's become a battleground in Syria's brutal civil war. Rebel fighters reportedly moved into the camp at some point. Government forces bombed in response, many residents fled. But some remain trapped there and a deal to allow food deliveries into the camp recently fell through. Which is why Lyse Doucet, who's been covering the Syrian war for the BBC, decided to visit Yarmouk and what she saw left a deep impression on her.
Lyse Doucet: This ghostly corridor, this road leading into Yarmouk, it was not just that every single building was completely gutted, it was that there was a tide of people waiting in this narrow alleyway, a road of ruins and the world, including Syrians, are shielded from what is happening inside. Going into Yarmouk that day was a lesson to me that no matter how many images you see uploaded onto Youtube and other social media sites, no matter how many photographs you see, it still does not prepare you for the shock of this, when you actually enter and see it with your own eyes, feel it yourself. You cannot help but be moved by the plight of people.
It was shocking. Absolutely shocking. The United Nations officials we traveled with were shocked. The people came lunging toward us, thinking that we worked for the United Nations, begging and pleading for us to somehow help them to get out. This is on the edges of Damascus, a 20 minute drive away from the center where the fountains are splashing with water, where the gardens and the parks are tended. People are suffering from the war in every part of Syria but there are some parts where you could be forgiven for thinking there wasn't really a war. People go about their daily lives - with difficulty and with danger - but they don't have to live under the conditions that we saw in Yarmouk.
Werman: You met a father and his 20-something daughter in Yarmouk. They hadn't seen each other for over a year. I guess that shows just how devastated this city is, but how is that possible?
Doucet: One of the things which was so utterly heartbreaking in Yarmouk was how quickly people succumbed to tears, that grown men cried. This father who was reunited with his daughter, he just couldn't help himself, he was beside himself. He was rubbing his eyes, the tears were flowing. The tears on his daughter's face were flowing. We saw children crying. Old women, young women. You'd think it was as if a disaster had just struck and they were overwhelmed suddenly by the emotion and pain that has happened but these people had been living with the siege for 8 months. This scene looked as if an earthquake had struck, so deep and widespread was the destruction. But this was a man made earthquake, the result of a life where there's been daily shelling, there's been bombardment, fighting street to street. The people were having to live with this day in and day out.
We met one woman - let me give you a concrete example - a 60 year old bent with age, bent with pain, she said she needed a kidney operation. She almost fell over when she saw us, saying, "Please, please, take us out, take us out. We're dying here." She thought we were from the United Nations and could get her out. The tears, she just couldn't stop crying, she was sobbing. When we left, about an hour later we saw her coming behind us. She came up to us and thanked us. She said, "You have helped me out. You have taken me out of Hell." She said, "I have been eating grass." She was clutching a piece of bread. She was so relieved to finally have bread.
But her sadness hadn't ended because she then started crying again to say, "I have 5 sons and 4 daughters and 3 of my sons are still inside." She talked about the children who were still inside. Even when you leave a siege, when you escape a siege, you can't escape the war because the war isn't over.
Werman: Yarmouk is an interesting case because it grew exponentially after Palestinian refugees flooded in after the 1984 Arab-Israeli war, so who lives there today?
Doucet: This is a place where, as you say, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, during the time of independence for Israel, there was a huge exodus of Palestinians. Some of them did go to Syria. It grew over the decades to be the heart of the Palestinian community, the biggest community of Palestinian refugees in Syria, about 180,000 people and it was a bustling neighborhood with cafes and restaurants. People were refugees but they managed to have a life. They could work, they could get access to resources, they could get passports. The people we spoke to said, "Why are we suffering? This is not our war. This is our home. We have no where else to go." This is where all these children we saw were born. They are of Palestinian origin but they're Syrians now.
Werman: For years, President Assad has boasted about his support for Palestinian refugees and the Palestinian resistance against Israel. You'd think he'd make Yarmouk a safe haven and yet he's shelling it.
Doucet: It's complicated by the fact that the armed Syrian opposition moved into the camp. Once they moved into the camp, it meant that the Palestinian camp was now part of the war. The Syrian government moved in, they started attacking, they started bombarding and then they eventually cut it off with this "surrender or starve" policy, which sadly, some people say, is working because people are surrendering.
There are the deals that are being made, not just in Yarmouk, but in other neighborhoods, where people, at the point of starvation, people who are so tired, so frustrated, so exhausted say, "Right. Let's make a deal. Let's find a way that we can maintain control and bring in food and medicine and some comfort to our families." So what's happening now is a very sensitive negotiations over Syrian armed opposition groups, the various group, they will pull out of the Yarmouk camp and Palestinian groups who are allied to the Syrian government will go in to maintain order.
Werman: Aside from just seeing more evidence of the horrors of Syria, why did you go to Yarmouk Lyse?
Doucet: Why did I go to Yarmouk? We tried for months to go to Yarmouk because it is fundamentally this brutal war and a worsening war and it's also a major humanitarian disaster. If you want to see the consequences of the war you have to go see what is happening to the people. Therefore, I think as a journalist who is still able to go to Damascus, able to get a visa, I think it is incumbent upon us to use the phrase "to bear witness," to say to the world, "You cannot say you don't know what is happening. Let us show you what is happening and let us ask our governments what they want to do about this." Starving a community is a war crime and can it be allowed that this kind of tactic is used in the century in which we live, in which no one can say, "We didn't know what was happening."
The former British Foreign Secretary, who is now heading the International Rescue Committee, which is an American NGO, put it this way: "If we cannot bring an end to the war, we should at least bring humanity to the conduct of the war because even in war there are rules. One of the rules is that civilian populations should not be punished and should not be used as weapons, as ammunitions in this war." And it's happening. It's happening every day in Syria now for a few years.
Werman: The BBC's Lyse Doucet, thank you very much as always.
Doucet: Thank you Marco.