THE BLOG

The Immiseration of Yarmouk

17/06/2014 17:12 BST | Updated 17/08/2014 10:59 BST

soup kitchen

This photograph of people in the besieged area of Yarmouk [photo from recent update] waiting to get some food at an outdoor soup kitchen is yet another reminder of what it's come to in Syria. Gruelling blockades, endless indiscriminate bombardment, destitution, pain, hunger.

When I last wrote about the Syrian government's grinding siege of the Yarmouk area of Damascus, I mentioned how residents' desperate foraging for food reminded me of the Nazi death camps, where slivers of bread and bowls of watery soup were fragile lifelines for the starving prisoners. And here we are again with vats of soup for trapped, starving people.

The giant soup containers from this photo in particular remind me of Gustaw Herling-Grudziński's description of the soup "cauldrons" from the Soviet labour camps in the 1940s. In Herling-Grudziński's camp - Yertsevo, in Arkhangelsk in the far north of Russia - there were three grades of soup cauldron, the "first" cauldron being the worst, given to prisoners who were failing to work hard enough:

"... the most terrible sight was the first cauldron queue, a long row of beggars in torn rags, shoes tied with string and worn caps with ear-flaps, waiting for their spoonful of the thinnest barley. Their faces were shrivelled with pain and dried like parchment, their eyes suppurating and distended by hunger, their hands convulsively gripping their billy-cans as if their stiff fingers had frozen to the tin handles."

After a year of almost total entombment in their encircled zone of south Damascus, how long before Yarmouk's 20,000 people are reduced to similar levels of Gulag-style immiseration?

Amnesty's latest update on Yarmouk reports that 26 people have died in the past two months, taking to 271 the death toll since a noose was tightened around the area last July. Malnutrition is rampant, while people are dying of treatable conditions because the hospitals have run out of drugs and are short of electricity. Doctors in Yarmouk say that old, once-banished diseases like tuberculosis, typhoid and smallpox have all returned because of the siege (in Yertsevo Herling-Grudziński also talks of a battery of diseases amongst the prisoners, including the terrible-sounding, starvation-related pellagra).

With international attention recently switching to ISIS and northern Iraq, there's a danger that the people of Yarmouk and Syria's other besieged areas will be forgotten. (More forgotten?) They're like the pitiful people in Herling-Grudziński's memoir: trapped in a prison within a bigger, country-wide prison, a world apart.