20,000 people in Syria's Yarmuk camp face starvation

BEIRUT (AFP) - Besieged since June, nearly 20,000 people in Damascus' Yarmuk Palestinian camp are so desperate for food that many eat stray animals, and some women have resorted to prostitution, according to residents reached via the Internet.

"Many here have slaughtered and eaten cats and dogs, and even a donkey," said Yarmuk resident Ali, who was a university student when Syria's revolt erupted in 2011.

"One man who killed a dog couldn't find any meat to eat on its body, because even the dogs are starving," he said.

"What was unimaginable a few months ago is normal now." Once a refugee camp, Yarmuk evolved generations ago into a bustling commercial and residential district, where both Syrians and Palestinians resided.

In 2011, it was home to some 150,000 Palestinians registered in Syria after waves of displacement forced their ancestors to seek shelter following Israel's establishment.

When war spread to areas of Damascus in the summer of 2012, thousands of people from other parts of the capital fled to Yarmuk, swelling its population further.

But Yarmuk soon became a war zone too, as Syrians taking up arms against President Bashar al-Assad's regime moved into the camp.

Some Palestinians joined the rebels, others backed pro-regime groups, mainly the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC).

In June, the army imposed a total blockade on Yarmuk, which covers an area of just over two square kilometres (less than a square mile).

Most residents had fled by then, but, according to the United Nations, 18,000 civilians remain.

Seven months later, food and medical supplies have all but run out, with prices skyrocketing to up to US$100 (S$127) for a kilogram of rice, residents say.

"The situation is so desperate that women are selling their bodies to men who stocked up food before the siege was imposed, for just a cup of rice or bulgur," said Ali.

"Imagine the feeling of a father unable to feed his children, as they wail from hunger," he added.

Seventy-eight people, including 25 women and three children, have died as a result of the shortages, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Of these, 61 died in the past three months, according to the Observatory, which relies on a network of activists and doctors inside the country for its reports.