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article imageBulldozers scoop slow way to recovery in Syria's Yarmuk

By Maher al-Mounes (AFP)     Oct 12, 2018 in World

Not far from where he used to live, Palestinian engineer Mahmud Khaled watched as bulldozers rumbled back and forth scooping up smashed concrete from the devastated streets of Syria's Yarmuk.

Once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees, the camp in the Damascus suburbs has been besieged, emptied of its inhabitants and pounded to rubble in Syria's seven-year war.

But five months after regime forces expelled the last jihadists in the area, soldiers now stand guard at the camp's entrance, wearing face masks to protect themselves against the dust billowing up into the air.

On a narrow street inside the camp where he grew up, Khaled has returned to help oversee bulldozers and diggers engaged in joint Palestinian-Syrian clean-up operations.

Yarmuk was once home to 160 000 Palestinian refugees
Yarmuk was once home to 160,000 Palestinian refugees

"When we first entered, we were horrified by what we saw," said the 56-year-old engineer, wearing a light grey and white checkered shirt.

"But after we started the clean-up, it all started to look up," Khaled said.

Off Yarmuk's main artery, recently cleared side streets are flanked by buildings ravaged by years of fighting.

Some have been reduced to mountains of grey rubble and mangled rebar. In others, entire floors dangle dangerously downwards, their steel rods jutting out.

"We have shifted 50,000 cubic metres of rubble and reopened all the main roads," Khaled said.

But "it will be a while before families can come back", he added.

- Rebels, jihadists -

As Khaled surveyed the neighbourhood, a yellow bulldozer spilled rubble into a large red truck behind him.

Walking through the camp, he pointed out his former home and the office where he used to work. The first had been damaged in fighting, while the second was completely destroyed.

Set up in 1957 to house Palestinian refugees, Yarmuk grew over the decades into a bustling district of the capital.

But the area has seen some of the worst suffering since Syria's conflict erupted in 2011, and today lies largely abandoned.

Tens of thousands of residents have fled Yarmuk during the Syrian war
Tens of thousands of residents have fled Yarmuk during the Syrian war

In 2012, around 140,000 residents fled clashes between the regime and rebels, leaving the rest to face severe food shortages under government siege.

Two years later, a harrowing photograph of gaunt-looking residents massing between bombed-out buildings to receive aid sparked global outrage.

The Islamic State group overran parts of Yarmuk in 2015, bringing further suffering to the area's remaining residents.

Since regime forces expelled IS in May, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) said no residents have been allowed to return.

With about a fifth of Yarmuk reduced to rubble, according to an initial estimate, Khaled said there is still much work to be done.

And although he estimates 40 percent of the buildings could be lived in, another 40 percent need major work before their residents can return.

When he visited the camp in May, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness described it as lying "in ruins".

Basic services such as water and electricity were so severely damaged, he said, that it was hard to imagine people returning any time soon.

- 'The very beginning' -

Funded by the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and the Syrian government, the clearing operation has been ongoing for 20 days and is expected to take another month to complete.

But there are no clear plans yet for the reconstruction of the neighbourhood or its ravaged infrastructure.

PLO official Anwar Abdel Hadi told AFP he hoped reconstruction would start "as soon as possible so that our people can return to the camp".

"But the rebuilding is still awaiting a government decision," he said.

Earlier this week, he said the clean-up aimed to open up the road to a key cemetery.

It "contained martyrs of the Palestinian revolution", he said.

An estimated 40 percent of the buildings in Yarmuk need major work before the residents can return  ...
An estimated 40 percent of the buildings in Yarmuk need major work before the residents can return, said engineer Mahmud Khaled

Palestinians call Yarmuk "the capital of the diaspora", referring to the hundreds of thousands who fled or were expelled from their land during the 1948 war surrounding Israel's creation.

It has also been the base for several Palestinian factions, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and a few prominent Palestinian leaders are buried there.

Amidst the piles of rubble, Ibrahim Am Ali walked between the bulldozers, oblivious to the dust permeating his clothes.

"I was desperate when I saw how destroyed the building was where my brothers and I had gathered over the past years," said the 74-year-old, also part of the team overseeing the clean-up work.

Now "we have started rebuilding the camp," the Syrian-Palestinian said, wearing a light purple shirt.

"Perhaps I will never see it completely rebuilt, but it's enough for me to have taken part in the very beginning."

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