Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

ISIS Militants Control Most Of Area Near Yarmouk Refugee Camp


The United Nations Secretary-General has called a refugee camp in Syria the deepest circle of hell. Ban Ki-moon spoke after the group that calls itself the Islamic State seized that camp.


SECRETARY-GENERAL BAN KI-MOON: After more than two years of merciless siege, 18,000 Palestine refugees and Syrians are now being held hostage. A refugee camp is beginning to resemble a death camp.

INSKEEP: You heard him say Palestinian refugees, which takes little explaining. Palestinians live in refugee camps across the Middle East, including in this camp called Yarmouk. Like many Palestinian camps, it has existed so long that it's grown into something like a city. It's a suburb of Damascus. Chris Gunness is a spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which does much work in Yarmouk. He is tracking this story from Jerusalem. Welcome to the program, sir.

CHRIS GUNNESS: Thank you so much.

INSKEEP: What are you learning about daily life in Yarmouk the last few days?

GUNNESS: Well, to echo the secretary-general that we just heard, Yarmouk has descended to levels of depravity and inhumanity. We have reports of people so terrified they are cowering in their battered homes, and although they are starving, they're too frightened to go outside and scavenge for food for their families. We have unconfirmed reports of aerial bombardment of the camps, which is why we are saying and the secretary-general has said there must be a pause. There must be humanitarian access so that we can bring assistance to the needy, the sick, the injured, the dying - civilians of all stripes. And thereafter, civilians who wish to leave should be allowed to be evacuated.

INSKEEP: What does it mean when the secretary-general says that people are being held hostage - the entire community is being held hostage?

GUNNESS: Well, since July 2013, after armed groups moved into the camp, the government threw a caudle (ph) round it and have effectively besieged it, which means that almost no food, no water, very few provisions have gone in. And now that ISIS and other armed groups are there, these people are effectively trapped.

INSKEEP: I guess there's a couple of solutions here. You referred to one, which is a pause in the fighting to get civilians out. Another possible solution is to try to get ISIS out. Is there any serious possibility of repelling ISIS from this area?

GUNNESS: We have always said, as a peaceful humanitarian organization, that one of the bitter lessons of the Syrian conflict is that where you pursue a military solution, inevitably it is the civilians who are slaughtered. You know, Ban Ki-moon used the word massacre, and the secretary-general of the U.N. does not use a word like massacre lightly. But certainly with 3,500 children in the camp, we are potentially looking at a slaughter of the innocents. And it's hard to imagine how a military escalation, in a place which, as you rightly described, is a labyrinthine suburb of a Middle Eastern capital city, is going to lead to anything but further bloodshed of civilians.

INSKEEP: What is the situation for United Nations personnel in Yarmouk?

GUNNESS: Well, we don't have any personnel who are actively working there because it is simply too dangerous, and that's been one of the problems. We are not able to work there. We are an unarmed humanitarian organization. We have lost, by the way, 14 staff members in this civil conflict. So for us, staff security is not some rhetorical thing a U.N. spokesman talks about on MORNING EDITION. It is a matter of life and death. And that is why we need the parties to see the sense of a truce, of a cease-fire and humanitarian access so that UNRWA can help and have access to civilians who have suffered appallingly.

INSKEEP: And when he says UNRWA, he means the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which Chris Gunness is a spokesman for. Thanks very much.

GUNNESS: My pleasure, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.