The Yarmouk refugee camp, located in southern Damascus, is an opposition enclave under the tight blockade of forces loyal to President Bashar Assad.
More than 100 people have died in Yarmouk since mid-2013 as a result of starvation and illnesses exacerbated by hunger or lack of medical aid, according to UN figures.
Filippo Grandi, commissioner general of UNRWA, was visiting Yarmouk as the relief agency resumed food distribution there. Shipments to the camp have been disrupted for months, sometimes cut off for weeks at a time, and Yarmouk has suffered from crippling shortages of food and medicine.
“I am deeply disturbed and shaken by what I observed,” Grandi said. Palestinian refugees to whom he spoke in Yarmouk were “traumatised by what they have lived through.”
The extent of damage to the refugees’ homes was shocking, he also said, adding that many Palestinians in Yarmouk need immediate support, particularly food and medical treatment.
Yarmouk is the largest of nine Palestinian camps in Syria. Since the camp’s creation in 1957, it has evolved into a densely populated residential district just five miles from the centre of Damascus. Several generations of Palestinian refugees have lived there.
About half of the camp’s 160,000 residents have fled since fighting erupted in mid-December 2012, according to estimates of UNRWA, which administers Palestinian camps in the Middle East.
Some sought refuge in neighbouring Lebanon, and others found shelter in UNRWA schools in Damascus and other Syrian cities.
When the uprising against Assad erupted in March 2011, most Palestinians stayed on the sidelines. As the revolt turned into a civil war that reached Yarmouk in December 2012, most residents backed the rebels and some even took up arms to fight Assad’s troops and pro-government Palestinian fighters.
Meanwhile, Syrian army troops have killed 175 rebels in an ambush south of Damascus as part of a government effort to secure the capital.
The dawn attack by president Assad’s forces in the opposition-held area of eastern Ghouta is likely to push rebel groups against his rule further away from Damascus.
If confirmed, it would be one of the deadliest attacks by government forces against rebels in the area.
A field commander in the eastern Ghouta area said most rebels killed in the assault near Oteibah lake southeast of Damascus belonged to the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front rebel group. The report said several of those killed were foreign fighters who came to Syria from Saudi Arabia, Chechnya, and Qatar to fight.
The official Sana news agency said the army’s operation dealt “a smashing blow to terrorists”, a term Syrian state media uses for rebels.