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Sam Dagher/The Wall Street Journal
Emergency aid workers tried to evacuate children, women, elderly and sick civilians from the Yarmouk Camp.

DAMASCUS, Syria—As the Syrian regime and opposition prepared to leave the war-torn country last weekend to take part in peace talks in Switzerland, dozens of emergency-aid workers waited hours for government permission to evacuate some of those trapped with little food and medicine in a rebel-held Damascus neighborhood.

The Wall Street Journal’s Sam Dagher went to the frontline of the Yarmouk Camp, where tens of thousands of people, mostly Palestinians, have not been allowed to leave the area for about a year. Both sides in the conflict have used access to food and medicine as a weapon, according to human-rights groups and aid workers.

Dagher met those hoping relatives inside the camp would be evacuated. “Let everyone out. We are eating cat and donkey meat, have mercy on us,” 45-year-old Qamar Azeema told Dagher when she was finally allowed to leave on Sunday. Dagher wrote this article, reporting on the desperate conditions inside the camp, and shot video footage on a mobile phone.

While at Yarmouk, Dagher met Eman Kanoun:

Her husband Tayseer Bakeer, son Mohammad, daughters Ghinwa and Hanan Bakeer, her husband and granddaughter Lilas were not among the lucky group to leave on Sunday. Mrs. Kanoun escaped in July to bring her family food, but regime soldiers would not let her back in, she told me.

Dagher asked Mrs. Kanoun what her granddaughter says to her when she speaks to her by phone.

Dagher also met Islam, a 9-year-old girl, whose father and brothers are trapped inside the camp:

He met a woman who had escaped from the camp five months ago.

A woman who gave her name as Umm Mohammad said she escaped from the camp in July with her newborn baby girl Tabarak and other children including daughter Islam. Umm Mohammad told me she could not breastfeed her baby and there was no baby formula. She said they used to crush lentils and rice to make bread out of the mix. “It was bitter whatever we put in it,” she said. Her husband, two stepsons and other relatives remain inside the besieged area. Islam told me she misses them all, especially her father.

Twenty-seven people were evacuated Sunday, including 11-year-old Sultan.

Ameera Kalash, 38, was evacuated with her four children, aged between one and five. This is the first time they have eaten bread and fresh fruit for seven months. Mrs. Kalash told Dagher that supplies are scarce and what little could be found is prohibitively expensive inside the camp.

Mrs. Kalash said that her children used to eat things like dried Tamarind all day. “I have no money, I used to beg to feed them,” she told me. A man interrupted saying, “we are eating cow feed.”

Zamzam Khalil, 95, is a Palestinian refugee who fled to Syria in 1948.

I watched as she was given an emergency nutrition pack to drink by aid workers. She told me how children would pick grass for people to eat. Not even Israel did this to us when we fled Palestine in 1948, she told me. The green pigment on her face is from tattoos commonly worn by Bedouin women across the Middle East.

Dagher also met Sheik Mohammad al-Omari, a cleric who is part of mediation group between regime and rebels inside Yarmouk. He had a message to those meeting in Switzerland.

On the same day Dagher also watched as representatives from UNRWA, a United Nations relief agency, negotiate for hours with a Syrian army general and other security force officials permission to take in 400 parcels of food to those trapped inside Yarmouk.

First they said they would only allow 200. Then they changed their minds and said only 100 and that all food boxes would be searched. I watched as boxes were cut with knives. They found bread and small nylon bags filled with flour. These were tossed out because they were “unauthorized” and could be taken by rebels, army officers said. Two small pickup trucks filled with the food boxes crossed the frontline. Gunfire was heard and the trucks returned with their goods undelivered. Syrian regime forces said the convoy was attacked by rebel snipers and that there would be no more deliveries. I watched as the trucks were turned back.

To highlight the plight of people inside Yarmouk and its lack of access, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)] launched a social-media campaign generating more than 31.6 million “impressions” and reaching tens of millions around the world.

“Millions of people heard our plea, that we have seen enough reports of starving children, infants with rickets and women dying in childbirth for lack of medical care. We urge the parties to listen to the voice of the international humanitarian community,” said UNRWA spokesperson, Chris Gunness. “A small amount of food aid has been allowed into Yarmouk in the last few days, but this is a drop in the ocean.”

– Compiled by Sarah Marshall


More on this story: Attempts to Send Food, Medicine to Besieged Homs Quarter Falter