'Severe damage' in Syria's Yarmuk makes returns unlikely: UN


Beirut (AFP)

The UN on Tuesday said it was almost impossible to imagine people returning to Syria's ruined Yarmuk Palestinian camp, a day after the government recaptured it from jihadists.

Syrian troops seized control of Yarmuk and other neighbourhoods in the south of the capital Damascus on Monday after a month-long assault against the Islamic State group.

Yarmuk has been so heavily battered by fighting that it was hard to picture daily life restarting there, the United Nations' Palestine refugee agency (UNRWA) said on Tuesday.

"Yarmuk was once the thriving home of 160,000 Palestinians. Today it lies in ruins, with hardly a house untouched by the conflict," spokesman Chris Gunness said.

"The public health system, water, electricity, basic services for life are severely damaged. The debris of this pitiless conflict is everywhere," he told AFP.

"In that environment, it is hard to see how people can go back."

An AFP correspondent in Yarmuk on Monday during a government press tour said buildings had been reduced to mound after mound of smashed concrete and rubble.

Any structures left standing appeared gutted or burned, with holes punched through by artillery fire.

Fighting over the years had whittled down Yarmuk's population to just hundreds by the time Syria's army began its assault last month.

Gunness said between 100 to 200 civilians were estimated to still be in Yarmuk, including people too old or sick to flee.

"The situation they face is inhumane by any standards and we need humanitarian access urgently," he said, adding that UNRWA had not had access to Yarmuk since 2015.

"It is heartbreaking to see these images and hear the human stories that lie behind them."

Yarmuk was, for decades, a bustling district where both Palestinians and Syrians lived. It was placed under crippling siege a year after the uprising began in 2011.

Anwar Abdel Hadi, an official with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), told AFP discussions had been initiated with UNRWA to see how Yarmuk could be rebuilt.

"The next step after liberation is combing the area, removing rubble, and assessing the damage to rebuild and bring infrastructure back so civilians can return," Abdel Hadi said.

"If someone tried to come back, wouldn't he need water, electricity, streets, services, and safety to live there?"