Former rebel fighter risks return to government-held Homs to escape dire living conditions in Rukban camp

Less than one year ago, Khaled al-Ahmad fought with a Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated faction in Syria’s sparsely populated eastern desert, where he lived with his family in the desolate Rukban displacement camp.

On Tuesday morning, al-Ahmad and his family boarded a truck and headed for government-held Homs city, risking detention and conscription to escape hunger and desperation in Rukban, which lies in a strip of no-man’s land between Syria and Jordan known as “the berm.”

“There’s a possibility that I will die, but it would be a quick death, better than the slow death we are facing in this camp,” says al-Ahmad, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, fearing repercussions for his relatives who remain in Rukban.

Al-Ahmad fled his native Homs city with his wife and two children in 2012 and sought shelter in eastern Homs before being displaced once more by the Islamic State. Dreaming of finding safety in Jordan, the family headed for the Jordanian border but, alongside tens of thousands of other displaced people, found themselves stranded in Rukban with the border closed to them.

Because Rukban, an informal and poorly equipped settlement in Syria’s harsh eastern desert, is in a border zone, humanitarian organizations face legal hurdles getting permission to deliver aid to the camp. In January, the United Nations managed to deliver aid to the camp for the first time in eight months, Syria Direct reported at the time. This was the last time any aid was delivered to the camp.

The deteriorating situation in the camp has driven thousands of civilians to leave in recent months, some heading to government territory and others to Kurdish-held parts of Syria. However, the level of misery in the camp has reportedly reached a point where even former pro-opposition fighters are choosing the risk of detention and military service over life in the camp, al-Ahmad says.

“When I see my children, I feel guilty for causing their homelessness in the desert,“ al-Ahmad told Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier on Monday while preparing to leave Rukban. “Even if I pay with my life, at least my children will live in their country, not in the desert.”


The market in Rukban camp on Monday. Photo courtesy of Khaled al-Ahmad.

According to camp director Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas, an average of 10-30 families have left the camp for government-held territory each day over the past two weeks, among them a small number of formerly FSA-affiliated fighters.

Al-Ahmad says he has given up all hope of the Syrian government stepping down, and sees no other choice now but to risk a return rather than “starve to death” in Rukban.

“All of us who stood up against the government will return to government control, sooner or later.”

Q: How long have you been in Rukban? When did you join the Free Syrian Army (FSA) faction that you were a member of?

We fled the brutality of the regime in Homs city in 2012. We went to the eastern parts of the province and then fled again because of Daesh [the Islamic State]. We intended to enter Jordan for comfort and safety, but we’ve been in the Rukban camp for the past two years.

[Ed.: The Jordanian government tightened its eastern border to Syria in 2014, allowing only a few hundred people to cross per month, before completely closing the border in 2016. The United Nations estimated that 50,000 people remained stranded in the Rukban camp in January 2018.]

Because of the poor living conditions and lack of work opportunities [in Rukban], I joined one of the FSA factions near the Jordanian border. I received a salary of up to 250 dollars [per month], which was enough for me and my children.

But more than eight months ago, I was fired, and the fighters who continued working for the faction received a salary of 100 dollars, not enough to pay for daily bread with the price of food in the camp.

[Ed.: Al-Ahmad asked that the name of the FSA faction he fought with not be mentioned, fearing repercussions for his relatives who remain in Rukban.]

Q: Why did you choose to return to government-held Homs from Rukban this week?

There is no clear end in sight to our suffering in Rukban, other than returning to regime territory. This is the only choice we have in front of us.

The situation in Rukban is now even more miserable than before, and I have no way to make a living. I tried working by making the mud bricks that camp residents use to build structures, but because of the amount of families leaving the camp, there is no longer a demand.


Rukban camp on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas.

Since February, I haven’t been able to buy bread for my family. My daughter needs milk, and it is very hard for me to secure enough for her, even though we mix the milk with water, to make it last longer. Diseases are spreading, and no countries are taking action to help the displaced in Rukban. I had hoped that that Jordan would open its doors to us, but this did not happen.

We are about to starve to death. I can’t take any more of this. In the regime areas, at least my wife and children can live in a house instead of the desert. When I see my children, I feel guilty for causing their homelessness in the desert.

Q: When are you leaving, and how much will the trip cost?  Have you heard anything from people who previously returned to government territory? What happened to them?

I decided to leave on Tuesday morning. One of the drivers who brings goods into the camp from elsewhere in Syria asked for $120 to bring me and my family to regime-held territory.  

I heard from one of the relatives of somebody who previously left and reconciled with the regime that they were held for investigation for two days. After that, they were released to join their families but were to be summoned for [military] service two months later.

Q: Are you worried about the possibility of detention or conscription after returning to government territory? Is this a gamble? Do you worry you may regret your choice?

It is definitely a gamble. There is a possibility I will die, but it would be a quick death, better than the slow death we are facing in this camp, deprived of all the basic necessities of life.

By returning to regime territory, I will have secured [the lives of] my wife and children. Even if I pay with my life, at least my children will live in their country, not in the desert. In the camp, we live by the law of the jungle: The strong devour the weak.

[Ed.: Rukban is located in a border strip between Syria and Jordan and is considered a no-man’s land.]

What would I regret? Our lives in the desert, waiting for aid packages that only reach us once a year? Or the life of homelessness that our children have lived? You may not believe me, but we have started hoping to die rather than live this kind of life.

We have followed the news as the regime regains control over most of the opposition-held areas  and the world watches without taking any action. This convinced me that the regime will be staying with the support of all the countries, and that all of us who stood up against the regime will return to regime control, sooner or later.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Alice Al Maleh

Alice Al Maleh holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from University of Copenhagen. She has studied Arabic independently since 2013 and most recently with Sijal Institute in 2017-2018.