(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

(AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

By AP - July 19, 2018

DAMASCUS, Syria — When the first Syrian soldier reached Lod street in the Palestinian refugee camp of Yarmouk in Syria’s capital, four sisters who survived the seven-year conflict hiding in their ground floor apartment emerged hesitantly and asked: “Are you a soldier or a militant?”

The young man came closer and took out his military ID to prove he was a Syrian soldier. The women began wailing emotionally, hardly believing that three years of rule by the Islamic State group had come to an end.

“The nightmare is over. They are gone,” said 62-year-old Izdihar Abdul-Mahmoud.

The Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus, once home to the largest concentration of Palestinians outside the West Bank and Gaza, housing nearly 160,000 people, has been gutted by years of war. Its few remaining residents have been traumatized by relentless fighting, bombardment, siege, and starvation. To rise again, officials estimated that 80 percent of its homes will need to be razed.

On a recent afternoon, the Abdul-Mahmoud sisters gathered with neighbors, friends, and soldiers outside their apartment, recalling the horrors they lived through the past years as they sipped dark Arabic coffee. Under IS, they were not allowed to even sit in the alley where their apartment is located.

“At the start of the siege I used to weigh 87 kilograms [191 pounds] and later 49 kilograms [107 pounds] in late 2013 and early 2014,” said Izdihar, the eldest of six sisters and four brothers.

Before the war, Yarmouk was a densely populated district of cheaply built multistory homes but was called a “camp” because Palestinians came there as refugees during the 1948 war.

Demonstrations took place in the camp early in the current conflict, which began in the south with protests against President Bashar Assad’s rule in March 2011. In December 2012, rebels then referred to as members of the Free Syrian Army took over the camp from government forces.

Airstrikes and bombings by the government became almost a daily occurrence. Rival insurgent groups fought one another until 2015, when the Islamic State group took control of most of the camp after deadly clashes with Aknaf Beit al-Maqdis, a faction linked to the Palestinian Hamas terror group.

Read More: Times of Israel