Displaced residents of a remote, frigid refugee camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border woke up on Wednesday to hundreds of leaflets strewn about the settlement.
Printed on the slips of white printer paper was an ominous message: “We, the Islamic State, urge you to leave as quickly as possible… We have decided to invade the area.”
Ali is one of the 75,000 displaced people—most of whom fled areas of eastern Syria now under IS control—residing in the informal encampment. Whether the threat came from the Islamic State or not, it felt very real, he says. “I despaired,” the local correspondentfor the Palmyra News Network and father of two tells Syria Direct’s Noura al-Hourani, “especially for my family.”
Just 11 days earlier, a suspected Islamic State car bomb killed at least four people and wounded dozens more at a market inside Rukban. It was the fourth deadly bombing at the camp believed to have been carried out by IS fighters.
The first, in June 2016, killed seven Jordanian soldiers when a bomb-laden car exploded at a military outpost near Rukban, prompting Jordan to close nearby border crossings and shutter virtually all humanitarian access to the camp.
So now what? “Even those who are now thinking of leaving would likely be throwing themselves to their doom,” Ali says. “We can’t return to our villages and towns, which either the Islamic State or the regime controls.”
“People are saying: Where can we go?”
Q: Where did you find the leaflets? Did you see who distributed them?
I came across these leaflets when I woke up on Wednesday morning, like the other camp residents. They were thrown here and there. We didn’t see or sense anything the night before, and do not know who did it.
The leaflets warn that IS has “decided to invade the area.” Photo courtesy of Palmyra News Network.
Q: How did you respond when you read the contents of the leaflet? How did it echo with other camp residents?
At first, I was afraid. I despaired, especially for my family and children. I wracked my brain for any solution to our tragic situation, which keeps getting worse and worse.
We are civilians, blameless. We fled death, and now we face death in a new form every day: cold, hunger, thirst, illness. And then, on top of that, the explosions and threats.
[Ed.: Since June 21, 2016, four separate bombing attacks at Rukban have killed a total of at least 19 people, including seven Jordanian soldiers.]
My family and I have endured a lot, just trying to survive. But things have reached a point of such hopelessness and exhaustion that I would rather die than stay here.
The leaflets sparked fear and anxiety among the residents. They already had many fears, from the repeated explosions in the camp, wondering what the future will be.
Q: Have residents responded and begun to leave the camp?
Nobody has left the camp so far. People hope to get out of the camp, but they don’t want to put themselves in danger. Even those who are now thinking of leaving would likely be throwing themselves to their doom.
People are saying: Where can we go? There is no place to go. We can’t return to our villages and towns, which either the Islamic State or the regime controls.
Q: Do you believe that the Islamic State is really the party that spread these leaflets? To what end, in your opinion?
There are a few theories floating around camp about who is responsible. Personally, I don’t think that IS distributed them. The style of writing in the leaflet is different, and IS usually claims responsibility for its actions. It does not threaten the families of people who have fought them before, if we assume that we are the families of the FSA, as IS accuses us of being.
It is difficult to accuse anybody directly. I think that the perpetrator has an interest in inciting unrest in the camp and problems between the displaced people and the Jordanian government. That could compel Jordan to then force the displaced to vacate the area.
Q: Who is responsible for protecting people in Rukban? Do international organizations have a role?
There is no official party responsible for the protection of the civilians. That increases our suffering, because at any moment there could be an attack or abuse of any civilian without repercussions.
For that reason, we are calling and have called for there to be security patrols, made up of people from the camp if the Jordanian government does not want to endanger its own citizens. But we want patrols with Jordanian protection and oversight.
There has been a conflict for a while between the camp residents and a faction called Maghawir a-Thawra, which belongs to the New Syrian Army. They have arrested people from the camp. For that reason, nobody can argue with any faction because then he would be attacked or arrested on the usual, trumped-up charge that he belongs to IS.
[Ed.: Now defunct, the New Syrian Army was a group of Syrian Arab Army defectors founded in November 2015 and active in eastern Syria.]
The [international] aid organizations should have a role. There is a lot of disregard for those stuck on the border. Meanwhile, they are subjected to daily violations. Unfortunately, civilians are paying the price for the conflict between IS and the other armed groups.