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June 27, 2017

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Palestinians flee hunger and hell of besieged Syria camp

DAMASCUS--Khulud Shehab's withered hands push two of her children out of Yarmuk in southern Damascus, anxious to flee the hell and hunger of the Palestinian refugee camp as fast as possible.

For seven months, the Syrian army has imposed a punishing siege on the camp to try to force out rebels holed up inside.

Khulud and her family are among the lucky few to be allowed to leave, after a deal was struck following months of negotiations between Syrian authorities and Palestinian factions in Yarmuk.

"Just look at them. You can imagine what it's like inside," Khulud tells an AFP journalist, displaying her cracked hands.

"It's disastrous. People are literally dying of hunger," says the slight and dark-eyed mother.

"We were boiling herbs and bits of cactus we found in the fields near our house," to eat and survive, she adds.

Amid the crush of leaving Yarmuk, Khulud has lost track of her husband and one of her daughters as the family negotiated streets strewn with the rubble of buildings destroyed in months of fierce fighting.

The camp began as a home for Palestinian refugees in the 1950s, but Yarmuk evolved over the decades into a bustling residential and commercial district, home to some 150,000 Palestinians as well as Syrians.

It became a war zone when rebels who took up arms against President Bashar al-Assad moved in and won the support of some Palestinian groups in the fight against regime forces.

The violence forced tens of thousands of residents to flee but an estimated 18,000 remained trapped inside Yarmuk after the army imposed a total blockade on the camp last June.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, says at least 88 people have died from hunger or lack of medical care since the blockade began.

After months of negotiations a deal was reached in late December between a committee of local rebels and 14 Palestinian factions inside Yarmuk to allow long-denied food into the camp.

Crowds Gather for Food Parcels

Despite some false starts, aid began entering Yarmuk in January and some of the trapped residents were allowed to leave for humanitarian reasons.

"Seeing the road open like this is the best thing that has happened to me in a long time," says Khulud.

"I'm overjoyed to be able to leave, and I hope that the others will be able to follow."

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, first distributed aid in the camp on Jan. 18 and then again from Thursday to Sunday.

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