Hundreds of displaced Syrians risk a return home as regime forces approach Rukban camp

AMMAN: Thousands of Syrians are streaming out of a remote displacement camp in the country’s southeastern desert for a third week on Tuesday, the director of the camp’s local council told Syria Direct, as regime forces now 100km southwest advance toward them along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

More than 75,000 displaced Syrians live in extreme poverty inside Rukban, a poorly supplied informal settlement located within an isolated no-man’s land on Syria’s southeastern border known as the “berm.” Food, water and medicine are scarce inside the camp. Armed gunmen roam among the tents at will and rule of law is virtually non-existent.

Today, “580 Rukban families,” or nearly 4,000 residents, of the camp are gone, the camp’s director, Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas al-Khalidi, told Syria Direct from the remote settlement. Since the beginning of this month, hundreds of families have packed into trucks and paid smugglers steep bribes to flee northwest into Syria’s eastern desert. 

For the families choosing to leave Rukban camp, it is at least their second time facing internal displacement. 

Rukban residents are afraid of “intensified battles in southern Syria,” al-Khalidi said. “This is a direct reason for why they are leaving.”

Earlier this month, regime forces seized a 30-kilometer stretch of land along the Syrian-Jordanian border from Free Syrian Army-aligned rebels, coming to within 40 kilometers of the remote Hadalat camp. There, an estimated 5,000 displaced Syrians live in rebel-held desert territory 120km southwest of Rukban, still along the border with Jordan, without adequate food, water or shelter.

Dozens of Hadalat residents fled toward Rukban for relative safety in recent days as the frontline neared.

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

But on Monday, regime forces inched closer, reaching within 15 kilometers of Hadalat, Younis Salamah, a spokesman for the FSA-aligned Usud a-Sharqia militia involved in the fighting told Syria Direct.

Displaced Syrians watching the battles from afar in rebel-held Rukban fear the fighting could soon reach their own encampment.

“What if regime forces advanced onto [Rukban] camp while we were defenseless?” said 45-year-old Dureid Abu Ahmad, father of three. He left Rukban nearly two weeks ago with his wife and three sons, he told Syria Direct, and is now living in his hometown of Qaryatayn, in regime-held central Homs province. “We were afraid.”

‘Better than a tent’

Most of the 3,840 Rukban residents choosing to flee the camp are heading almost 300 kilometers north to Kurdish-held territory, said al-Khalidi, the Rukban camp director, whose council works to keep track of camp statistics.  

For hundreds of others hoping to flee encroaching regime forces, safety means heading back home to their towns and villages now deep within regime territory.   

Among the camp residents returning to their original homes are an estimated 53 families—including Dureid Abu Ahmad’s—originally from the central Homs province town of Qaryatayn, which sits in a remote stretch of land 170 kilometers northwest of Rukban.

Once a mixed town of Syrian Muslims and Christians reliant on agriculture and government jobs in nearby Damascus, Qaryatayn fell to the Islamic State in 2015. Thousands of its roughly 14,000 residents fled south to Rukban for safety.  

Syrian regime forces retook the town in 2015, but residents who had already left avoided going back, fearing arrest or forced military conscription at the hands of regime authorities there.

In returning home to Qaryatayn in recent weeks, and re-entering regime territory, residents streaming back in from Rukban now face the threat of conscription and arrest head-on.

Two recent returnees who spoke to Syria Direct say the risks are worth it.

Dureid Abu Ahmad, the father of three, saw his own 20-year-old son Ahmad arrested in front of him at a regime checkpoint, as the family crossed over from rebel territory.

“They took my son immediately after performing a search on him,” Abu Ahmad told Syria Direct. “They checked his ID card and handed him directly over to military service before allowing me and the rest of my family to continue onward to Qaryatayn.”

His son is now serving a mandatory tour of duty in Damascus, Abu Ahmad said.

Upon arriving in Qaryatayn, Abu Ahmad and his family found their house “50 percent” destroyed by clashes over the past two years. Today they are living in just one room of the house after restoring it to a livable condition.

“This is much better than living in a tent,” he said.

Abu Ahmad still believes he made the right choice in returning to Qaryatayn, despite his son’s arrest. His days in Rukban, Abu Ahmad said, “were difficult and bitter—we won’t forget them.”

For Qaryatayn native Ibtissam Umm Khalil, a 50-year-old grandmother, the return trip home from Rukban proved better than staying. She originally fled her home in 2015, as IS took over the town. 

Earlier this month, at the suggestion of her 27-year-old son Khalil, Umm Khalil paid smugglers to drive her, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren back to Qaryatayn.

Khalil chose to stay in Rukban, afraid of being forced into regime military service.

“Rukban became too dangerous because of the approaching clashes,” she told Syria Direct from her house in Qaryatayn. “The clashes, the hunger, the poverty, the lack of life—the situation became horrible in every possible way.”

Returning home, for Umm Khalil, “is more merciful a fate than staying and waiting for a slow death in Rukban.”

“It’s my grandson’s right to live a life of dignity and safety, whereas each and every day in Rukban is a degradation.” 

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.