Umm Khaled had no way of knowing where the bullet came from when it pierced through her hand three weeks ago; only that it justified her fear of stepping outside the family tent in their remote desert camp.
The mother of three, 29, lives with her husband and three children in Rukban, a sprawling, makeshift refugee camp along Syria’s southern border with Jordan. The family fled there one year ago from their home in Islamic State-controlled Palmyra. But in Rukban, they did not find a reprieve from the violence.
A series of Islamic State-claimed bomb attacks left the informal settlement’s 75,000 residents fearing for their lives. Free Syrian Army-aligned gunmen roamed among the tents, while sexual harassment and illicit drugs were reportedly widespread.
“My children used to wake up at night, terrified from the sounds of gunfire,” Umm Khaled tells Syria Direct. “I was afraid they might get shot.”
In response, a group of camp-wide tribal leaders convened on February 5 to announce the formation of a civilian administrative council to bring “a halt to this chaos and lack of security,” Mu’ayyad al-Abeed, the newly-formed body’s president tells Bahira al-Zarier.
Tribal leaders meet in rural southeastern Syria on Sept. 20, 2016. Photo courtesy of the Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia.
“The camp residents need safety and justice because they are stuck here in this desert with a border closed in their faces and no ability to go anywhere else.”
Q: Why did you make the decision to form a council within the camp?
We are living here in the middle of the desert, with none of the basic necessities for daily life. We need to work on maintaining security and safety for camp residents. We also need to organize ourselves so that we can keep on living in the camp, should the closure of the Jordanian border continue.
There are many complaints from the camp residents of an increase in theft, the spread of weapons and indiscriminate gunfire. For example, just three weeks ago, someone shot a pregnant woman in the hand.
In addition to the fighting, there is widespread use of illegal drugs among the young men in the camp as well as many cases of sexual harassment, as well as quarrels and fights.
We also received a large number of pamphlets disseminated by someone inside the camp ordering residents to leave the camp, stirring panic and fear.
The main reason for forming the civilian council was to bring a halt to this chaos and lack of security.
Q: Talk more about the council and who is on it.
[It consists of] the local administration council for the camp, the executive office, the judiciary council and an advisory committee. We’ve also formed a Civil Defense office for the camp and a finance committee.
We held an election to form these offices that included the prominent tribes of Rukban, in addition to the Free Syrian Army [FSA] and the Free Tribes’ Army located inside the camp, as well as representatives of the camp residents themselves.
Logo of the newly-formed local administrative council. Photo courtesy of Mu’ayyad al-Abeed.
Q: Has the local council actually been able to enact any of its plans for the camp? Tangibly, what have you accomplished so far?
First and foremost, the camp residents need safety and justice, because they are stuck here in this desert with a border shut in their faces and no ability to go anywhere else.
[Ed.: Since June 2016, when an Islamic State-claimed car bomb killed seven Jordanian soldiers at a nearby outpost, Jordan has shuttered its border, meaning Rukban residents are essentially trapped in the camp. However, some Rukban residents have managed to flee the camp in recent months by paying smugglers to take them to Turkey or other parts of Syria.]
With regards to our power to execute our decisions, we have succeeded in expelling all the FSA fighters who were inside the camp, and have banned them from roaming around in their cars between families’ tents.
The judiciary council also passed a new law banning weapons and punishing whomever carries them publicly inside the camp. People caught carrying weapons now must pay a fine and leave the camp.
We’ve also put together offices for civil defense, police, justice, health and education.
As for the camp residents— they know this administration is the only protection they have from the violence. After all, we live here in the desert, where there are no laws.
So, the chaos and fights that were once widespread have been reduced by about one half, and there is a large acceptance and compliance from the civilians. In addition, a large number of young men have turned in their weapons and applied to join the civil defense and civilian police.
Q: What issues do you expect might hinder your work and decision-making?
We suffer from a lack of educated and cultured people inside the camp, in addition to a fear of Islamic State sleeper cells among the residents, who cause explosions. There is also very little material support inside the camp.