The hatreds that have been unchained by Syria's civil war are playing out in a brutal siege of Damascus' Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp where civilians, including babies and the elderly, have starved to death, and others, reportedly, have been driven to eating cats.
The daily exchanges of gun- and shellfire pit not just the government against rebels, but also secular Palestinians against Islamist Palestinians - a reflection of the wider sectarian conflict that has ravaged Syria for nearly three years and bled into Iraq and Lebanon.
An estimated 16,000 Palestinian and Syrian civilians have been trapped inside the nearly 2.6-square-kilometre area for months, with virtually no food, water, medicines or electricity, just yards from well-stocked shops, restaurants, clinics and parks packed with frolicking children and watchful parents. Yarmouk is among a string of besieged Damascus suburbs that could be covered by proposals for the creation of local ceasefires and humanitarian corridors pushed by the United States and Russia in the run-up to an international conference that begins on Wednesday in Switzerland, called to kick-start talks on ending the violence.
The first delivery of humanitarian assistance in months reached the camp on Saturday, under an accord between the rival Palestinian factions, but it was unclear if it was a one-time deal. UN Relief and Works Agency spokesman Chris Gunness said the 200 packets would be enough to feed just 333 people for a month, a fraction of those inside the area.
"People are eating grass, leaves, figs and seeds. We are also eating cactuses. We peel the outside, cut the pulp up like potatoes and boil it," said a resident in a brief telephone conversation punctuated by explosions. He asked not to be identified for fear it would single him out as a target. "We haven't seen any bread in seven months."
People were so desperate, he said, that some had risked sneaking out to retrieve vegetables from plots abutting Yarmouk, only to be killed by snipers. At least 36 people had starved to death or succumbed to illnesses exacerbated by hunger, he said. Many were also suffering diseases like tuberculosis and jaundice and some women had died in childbirth, he said. Other reports put the total number of deaths at 46 since October.
The resident said that food is available on the black market at exorbitant prices out of reach of most people. A kilogram of lamb sold for about US$40, while the same amount of rice, if it could be found, goes for US$8 and a litre of petrol, used to power generators shared between several homes, costs US$4, he said.
Mahmoud Abu Mousa, 32, a law student who fled Yarmouk in June and had helped negotiate several evacuations of sick and wounded, confirmed reports residents had been eating cats.
"I was speaking to a seven-year-old boy on a cellphone recently and told him to pray to God for aid," Mousa recounted. "The boy replied, 'I will pray to God to die.' Why, I asked him. 'Because if I die, I will go to heaven and there's food there,' he said."