DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — In the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk on the edge of Syria’s capital, bulldozers and trucks are clearing tons of rubble from streets gutted by war.
The built-up residential area was once home to 160,000 residents, both Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war around Israel’s creation as well as middle-class Syrians. Today, it is a post-apocalyptic vista of bombed out buildings coated in gray dust.
Syrian rebels seized the district in 2012, and government forces responded with a crippling siege and near-daily shelling, driving most residents out. Fighting broke out among different armed groups, and Islamic State militants seized control in 2015, before being driven out in a government offensive earlier this year.
The neighborhood was established after 1948 to house thousands of Palestinians who fled or were driven out of what is now Israel. Some 5 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants are scattered across the Middle East.
On Saturday, Associated Press reporters saw bulldozers clearing away mounds of rubble beneath the jagged shells of hollowed-out apartment blocks. The streets are covered with piles of steel rebar, cinder blocks and burnt-out cars.
Mahmoud Khaled, an engineer supervising the work, says clearing operations on the main roads began three weeks ago and will continue for another month, before work begins on side streets. Only then can the government start to restore electricity, water and other infrastructure. Khaled says around 50,000 cubic meters of rubble have so far been removed.
Syrian officials estimate the country will need up to $400 billion to rebuild from the devastating civil war, which is still underway as insurgents control parts of northern Syria. Western countries have refused to pledge reconstruction aid in the absence of a political transition from President Bashar Assad’s rule, something the government adamantly rejects.
It is unclear when or if the Palestinians of Yarmouk will ever return.
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