The Perverse Puritans: Jabhat al Nusra's Harassment of Yarmouk

The only consistency about Yarmouk, the Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus, is its unrelenting descent into anguish. The refugee camp has been under siege by the Syrian regime and its proxies for more than 440 days. Water has been cut off entirely for over a month in a regime-produced drought. The residents desperately rely on man-made wells that yield non-potable water. The dirty water, in turn, gets people sick which begets another crisis given that medical aid, and doctors to treat people, is in short, almost non-existent, supply. Yarmouk has been robbed of more than 900 Palestinian lives during the course of the Syria conflict. The Syrian regime has manufactured an agony that far exceeds the coverage Yarmouk has received.

Having said that, the transgressions of the opposition inside the camp cannot, should not, be eclipsed. The first battalions of the Free Syria Army that entered Yarmouk were notorious for their ill treatment of residents inside the refugee camp. These marauding thugs robbed stores, harassed civilians and even looted the hospital. Of course, the Free Syrian Army is by no means monolithic and the actions of these particular segments should not be understood to represent the FSA. In fact, other oppositional fighters aided in the expulsion of these criminal FSA segments from the camp.

However, an ugly scourge has now emerged to envelop almost 60 percent of Yarmouk. Jabhat al Nusra is one of two anti-regime forces in the refugee camp, the other being Aknaf Bait al Makdes, and it has recently amped-up efforts to impose its foul dogma on residents.

Nusra has begun the now-familiar process of policing Yarmouk based on their perverted understanding of Sharia. The Al Qaeda affiliate has put restrictions on the intermingling of males and females within various contexts inside the camp. Beyond gender segregation, woman and girls are increasingly being pressured to wear veils, facing harassment and abuse if they forget or refuse to cover up.

A former teacher in the camp who asked that her name not be mentioned explains, "there is no food, there is no medicine, there is no water. And now these people come and tell me I can't associate with men or wear my hair out. We have enough problems already!"

In addition, Nusra has now banned the sale of cigarettes in their territory. It may appear that these impositions are of minor severity given the larger context of slaughter. But to the starved and distraught, the harassment of these thugs is particularly wounding.

"We are Muslims but this is not our Islam," Hakim Saied, a resident of the camp, explains, "these are foreign beliefs. There isn't a girl in the camp that walks around without wearing a Hijab. It was never like this in the camp. This is not the kind of Muslims we are. We are getting it from all fronts now. We have enough problems without these people forcing this on us. Things keep getting worse."

The militant group has also played a destructive role in attempts at facilitating a truce inside the camp. A treaty proposed over the summer, one that Palestinian sociologist Nidal Bitari and I had worked on, initially unraveled largely due to disruptions from more extreme, possibly ISIS-associated, elements of Jabhat al Nusra. The truce was one of the most promising developments in months. It was even premised on a list of demands drafted by civilians inside the camp. Now, with its collapse, the prospect of resolving the crisis in Yarmouk seems more unattainable than ever. And the residents of the camp know this grim reality all too well.

To make matters worse, there has been a string of attacks against prominent civil society figures inside the camp. A few individuals associated with the last truce attempt have been intimidated and even harmed for their involvement. While most of these attacks were anonymous and unclaimed by any faction, there is good reason to suspect that Nusra militants played a role in these aggressions.

Perhaps most disheartening of all is that the militant group has started enforcing a ban on singing inside the camp. Yarmouk, throughout its ruin, has managed to produce some of the most beautiful music to come out of war-torn Syria. A musical troupe, equipped with a ragged piano on wheels, continuously awed an international audience with their resilience and music.

Jabhat al Nusra have now begun muting the last melody, outside of the howling and anguish, that emerges from Yarmouk.