In November 1917, Arthur James Balfour sent a letter from the British government to [Baron] Rothschild, supporting the intention of establishing a national country for Jews in Palestine, when they constituted only about 5 percent of the total population at that time. A few years later, Palestinians were expelled from their land by Jewish gangs with British and international blessings, and they settled in neighboring countries. In 1950 Khan Al-Sheeh, one of the Palestinian camps in Syria, was established. It is located on the road to Al-Quneitera in Al-Jolan, about 25 kilometers from Damascus. Most of its population came from Al-Jaleel in Palestine. All 16,000 of them were registered with the United Nation Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which provided them with some medical and educational services. Due to overpopulation, many people moved [from there] to live in a similar complex nearby called “North of the Road.” Its important location on the road between Damascus and Al-Quneitera made it the linking point between the two cities, and the trading route for various goods and products. The agricultural nature of its surrounding made it a summer area for the people of Damascus. The Palestinian refugees who lived in this camp had a good relationship with the people of the neighboring villages, based on love and respect. They celebrated all occasions together and they felt they were family.
When the Syrian revolution started in March 2011, its events spread to neighboring areas in Al-Quneitera, including Kanaker and Khan-Arnabeh, and villages in the West Ghouta region of Damascus like Artouz, Qatana, Daria, Zakia, etc. As a path between all those areas, the camp was affected by the events. Even though its people had chosen neutrality, they performed humanitarian work by supplying the besieged areas with food supplies. They also provided medical services and first aid to the wounded who had been shot by regime forces.
Muatasim, a nurse from the camp, said, “People came here from different parts of Damascus escaping death and arrest. They are our neighbors and relatives, we can’t leave them alone. Yes, I personally helped many wounded who had sought refuge in our camp.”
The camp became a refuge for displaced people coming from rebellious areas where the events had escalated. People shared their houses and food with those who had escaped the brutality of the regime, which used several kinds of weapons against them, including in Daria, Artouz, and Al-Yarmouk camp. It had become a common scene to watch the people of the camp waiting in shifts for cars bringing displaced people from different areas to welcome them and offer help, water, and sandwiches.
Abu Mouhammed, a Palestinian refugee from Tabaria described what he saw after the massacre of Jdedet Artouz. “People were scared and helpless, this reminded me of when I was a kid when we were expelled from our village in Palestine. It is tougher and harder now, we have taken in our brothers and we have offered all the help we could, we are neighbors and we share the same calamity.”
The camp took a neutral stand on the events, and its people did not directly participate in any action that supported or opposed the regime, except for their humanitarian role. For that, the camp was targeted by regime forces and various security agencies. They began arresting all humanitarian activists and many of the doctors who provided medical care to the wounded of the rebel areas, including Dr. Radi Shakoush and Dr. Hussein al-Said, who were arrested in August 2012. Many people were arrested during raids launched by security forces against the camp, or while on their way to work or school. Many were tortured to death, like the six brothers of the al-Zaher family who died in regime prisons in March 2013.
As the fighting between the regime and the FSA got closer to the camp, it was targeted by the regime in April 2013. With the FSA controlling nearby areas, the regime started dropping barrel bombs over the camp. They caused death and destruction, preventing most movement within the camps, and making all aspects of life inside impossible. Later, the siege began and it became extremely hard to get into or out of the camp through the Drosha town checkpoint, which was controlled by the regime forces. Whoever got through this checkpoint was considered to have been reborn due to the bad treatment and the insults people faced [at the checkpoint].
Mouhammed, a 60-year-old grocery store owner, described what happened to him one time he was passing through this checkpoint. “I am an old man with diabetes. They forced me out of the bus because of my surname; they showed no respect to my age or illness. They kept me waiting for four hours in the hot sun until I was completely tired, they checked my name and age, and then they let me go, but they prevented me from entering the camp so I returned to Damascus”.
The regime imposed many restrictions on the camp and increased its people’s suffering by closing the main road that linked Damascus to Al-Quneitera through Khan Al-Sheeh. This prevented all food supplies and heating fuel from entering the camp. When the power went off for a long time, the people there lived in complete darkness. Moreover, all communications [from the camp] were cut off, isolating whoever was there from the outside world. The only remaining road linking them to the outside world went through farms, to a town called Zakia, close to Al-Kasweh, and [the road went on] from there to Damascus. But the road was exposed to regime snipers and missiles fired at passing cars, which left many dead and injured.
More than 65 martyrs died from the bombing, sniping, or torture, and dozens were arrested. The worst part is the number of displaced people, which exceeded half the camp’s population. Some escaped death to Damascus, while others went to Lebanon. Hundreds tried to escape to Europe on death boats—some arrived, while others drowned. The only question left here is: Who is supposed to handle this new displacement of the Palestinian refugees?