UN aid workers encounter grave desperation in Palestinian refugee camp cut off by Syria’s war


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JUDY WOODRUFF: The State Department released its annual human rights report today and concluded that last summer’s chemical weapons attack in Syria, which killed more than 1,400 people, was the worst human rights violation of 2013.

While there have been no new reports of chemical attacks, the civil war rages on, and the humanitarian crisis continues to escalate.

Tonight, we take a closer look at those barely surviving amid the conflict.

It’s a scene of utter desolation. Here in the Yarmouk camp, thousands of Palestinian refugees are caught in the crossfire of civil war in a country that is not their own.

MAN (through interpreter): By God, we are dying from hunger. We can’t take this anymore.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yarmouk was first established in 1957, near the center of Damascus. Once, 160,000 Palestinians lived there. Now, 18,000 are left. They have been under siege by the Syrian army since July, after some Palestinian factions turned against the Assad regime.

Since then, the U.N. says more than 100 residents have died of starvation and related illnesses. This week, aid workers negotiated their way into the camp and were met with a swarm of desperate people. U.N. footage showed an elderly woman who came out to receive aid.

The workers ask if she is Palestinian or Syrian. “I’m Palestinian,” she laments.

Filippo Grandi is head of the U.N.’s Palestinian Refugee Agency. He visited Yarmouk on Tuesday, and said later the people looked like ghosts.

FILIPPO GRANDI, Commissioner General, United Nations Relief and Works Agency: These are people that have not been out of there, that have been — that have been trapped in a situation not only without food, medicines, clean water, all the basics, but also probably completely subjected to fear, because there was fierce fighting, noisy fighting going all along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as the fighting rages on, an ever-growing number of Syrians have been forced to leave their homes. Nearly seven million are displaced within their own country. Another 2.5 million have sought refuge in surrounding states.

Lebanon has the largest contingent, at more than 900,000. Jordan and Turkey now host roughly 600,000 Syrian refugees each. And more than 200,000 Syrians are living in Iraq.

In Washington today, Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia highlighted the humanitarian crisis, insisting that Russia put pressure on Assad.

SEN. TIM KAINE, D-Va.: None of this is an accident. The Assad regime is using forced starvation and forced sieges as a weapon to destroy the Syrian people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For now, U.N. staffers continue to work through negotiations with the Syrian government, rebel and Palestinian factions within the Yarmouk camp, with the aim of delivering more aid while it can still do some good.

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