Syria: UN agency delivers supplies to besieged camp amid ‘unbelievable devastation’
by United Nations News Centre
Amid “unbelievable devastation,” the United Nations agency charged with ensuring the well-being of Palestinian refugees across the Middle East has today been able to deliver life-saving supplies to families in a camp on the outskirts of Damascus, where nearly every building is an empty shell and the war-weary, desperate people have suffered unparalleled deprivation.
As massive crowds lined up with “row upon row of gaunt faces,” the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) distributed 450 food parcels in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk today, bringing to 7,493 the total number of food parcels distributed since 18 January.
“Significantly, the UNRWA team was permitted to work from an UNRWA facility in Yarmouk for the first time since December 2012,” said spokesperson Christopher Gunness, who added: “This represents a highly encouraging step towards re-establishing full services and humanitarian access to Yarmouk.”
The UNRWA team received authorisation to resume food distribution inside Yarmouk at 2 p.m. local time and proceeded from the northern Bateekhah entrance to UNRWA’s Tabgha School. UNRWA vehicles carried 450 parcels to the school, where aid was distributed for about four hours.
“Despite the presence of large crowds, the distribution was orderly with no security incidents or pauses,” said Mr. Gunness, who also emphasized that UNRWA staff were permitted to manage the distribution process in its entirety, without the involvement of third parties.
He said that while intense humanitarian needs remain, UNRWA welcomes this encouraging development and is assured that expanded humanitarian access will be maintained over the coming days. “The Agency stands ready to rapidly re-establish services and increase humanitarian assistance,” Mr. Gunness added.
After fighting broke out late at night on 7 February, forcing UNRWA to temporarily suspend its aid deliveries, the Agency has had only intermittent access to the camp in the past two weeks. An UNRWA food parcel feeds a family of between five and eight for 10 days. There 18,000 Palestinians in the camp and an unknown number of Syrians.
When partial humanitarian access was granted on 18 January and 20 February, UNRWA had successfully distributed 7,000 food parcels, 10,000 polio vaccines and a range of other medical supplements to civilians inside the camp. Prior to the armed conflict in Syria, which began in March 2011, Yarmouk – a suburb just south of Damascus – was home to over 160,000 Palestine refugees.
During his visit to the camp two days ago, UNRWA chief Filippo Grandi painted a grim picture of the situation there, telling reporters later that “the devastation is unbelievable. There is not one single building that I have seen that is not an empty shell by now.”
What was even more shocking was the state of the people inside. With much of the camp destroyed and passageways blocked with barricades, “the people coming from within Yarmouk appear suddenly near [our] distribution point. It’s like the appearance of ghosts. These are people that have not been out, that have been trapped in there not only without food, medicines, clean water – all the basics – but also probably completely subjected to fear,” he said.
Since December 2012, fighting has caused at least 140,000 Palestine refugees to flee their homes in Yarmouk, as armed opposition groups established a presence in the area, with Government forces controlling the periphery.
Starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid have contributed to some 100 people dying in the camp in recent months, according to UN figures.
U.N. Denies That Syria Image Was Faked
by Rick Gladstone
A United Nations photograph showing a sea of hungry Palestinians awaiting emergency food amid the detritus of their bomb-ravaged neighborhood near Damascus has been retweeted more than eight million times in the past few weeks, becoming such an arresting image of the Syrian civil war that some blogosphere skeptics have suggested that it was digitally faked. The suggestion provoked a passionate denial on Tuesday by the official responsible for distributing the photo.
The official, Chris Gunness, the spokesman for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which administers aid to Palestinian refugees in the Middle East, said he was stupefied by the expressions of doubt about the photo. At the same time, Mr. Gunness said, the skepticism may partly reflect a blindness by many people to what is happening in Syria, which entered its fourth year of war this month.
“The photo is an exact replica of reality,” Mr. Gunness said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, where he is based. “I can understand why that reality would beggar belief. But in the 21st century, such a scene exists. People are incredulous because it’s hard to believe.”
Mr. Gunness, who has expressed personal outrage at conditions at the Yarmouk camp, chose the photograph to represent the suffering in Syria as part of a social media campaign known as a Thunderclap. The campaign, by 130 humanitarian relief organizations, including major United Nations agencies, is pressing for access to Syrian civilians trapped in fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists and insurgents.
Organizers of the campaign are planning to display the photo on a giant screen in Times Square when the number of retweets reaches 23 million — matching Syria’s prewar population — which is expected to happen next week. The organizers are also planning a flash-mob event in Times Square to coincide with the display, in which participants dressed in black will hold loaves of Syrian pita bread aloft in a symbolic gesture to the suffering people shown in the image.
The Yarmouk photo was published by nearly 1,000 newspapers, including The New York Times. Britain’s Daily Mail called it a “biblical picture of suffering.” On Twitter, the photo provoked expressions of incredulity and outrage that such conditions existed, as well as questions about the authenticity. Some viewers speculated that the image of desperate and hungry people had been manipulated with techniques that are increasingly easy.
Mr. Gunness called such speculation “completely baseless and utter nonsense.” Asked who might have been responsible for spreading such criticism, he said, “I’ve got no idea.”
In a statement, Mr. Gunness also denied that his agency had taken sides in the conflict by focusing on the Palestinian victims. “When you work in war zones across the Middle East as Unrwa has done for over six decades, the ‘neutrality instinct’ is second nature,” he said. “At the same time, we have a mandated obligation to protect our beneficiaries.”
Mr. Gunness said that when he first viewed the photograph, taken in late January and showing Palestinians grimly queuing for food distribution in what remained of the Yarmouk camp, which is still home to an estimated 18,000 people, he knew it would invite emotional reactions.
“I saw that image and said, ‘This has the wow factor,’” he said. “It’s an iconic image, and the more it goes around the better.”
Digital photography experts said they believed that the image was real.
Hany Farid, a computer science professor at Dartmouth College who specializes in image forensics, said a relatively simple “clone test” — an examination to reveal whether individuals in the crowd looked alike and would thus be evidence of alteration — showed no such duplications.
He also said the consistency of light and shadow in the photograph would have been enormously difficult to fabricate. More persuasive, he said, was a video of the Yarmouk camp shot at the same time that corroborated the scene.
“There is no evidence that photo is fake,” Mr. Farid said in a telephone interview. “So now everybody should shut up about it.”
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