On Syria’s remote southern border, dozens of children are dying: ‘Nobody is doing anything about it’

AMMAN: In a makeshift desert camp along Jordan’s northeastern border with Syria eight months ago, Alaam Mudeehah gave birth to a baby boy.

By November, he was dead, after intense fever and swelling swept through his body.

“My own son died right in front of me, while I was holding him in my arms,” Mudeehah told Syria Direct. His name was Shadi.

Dozens of displaced children trapped at Rukban, an informal, remote camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border, are dying of disease due to a lack of humanitarian aid and medical supplies, sources on the ground tell Syria Direct.

Shadi was one of at least 24 Syrian children who died of treatable illnesses since Jordan closed its two northeast border crossings with Syria on June 21 after a car bomb exploded at its military outpost near Rukban, killing seven Jordanian soldiers.

The border shutdown is necessary to protect against “threats to Jordan’s security,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters at a press conference in Amman in October.

The border closure, however, severely limits the amount of food and medical aid delivered to more than 75,000 displaced Syrians stranded in the no-man’s-land, a demilitarized zone known as the “berm,” between two earthen mounds demarcating the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Syrian side of the berm is held by a coalition of rebels, which for unknown reasons, is not providing any care or aid to the residents in their territory.

Within his lifetime, Shadi never left the berm, and never had access to sufficient healthcare.

“There wasn’t even a doctor who could diagnose his illness,” Mudeehah, his mother, told Syria Direct.

“My son suffered for an entire month,” she said. “His body temperature rose, he developed diarrhea, and when those symptoms worsened, swelling appeared all over his body due to the loss of fluids.”

Nurses at the camp’s only clinic “suspected jaundice” as his skin yellowed, Mudeehah said, but could do nothing for Shadi except provide an intravenous drip and precious little medicine—neither of which were enough to save his life.

Though nobody may ever know what exact disease killed him, a recent outbreak of hepatitis A—which can cause jaundice like Shadi’s—is now widespread amongst children trapped inside the berm exposed to contaminated food and water, Dr. Jalal a-Zoubi, a Jordanian doctor who monitors Rukban’s sole medical clinic, told Syria Direct.

Based in Jordan with World Vision, an international humanitarian organization, a-Zoubi cannot enter the berm to treat any of the clinic’s patients. Instead, he corresponds closely with the few residents who work inside the clinic.

A-Zoubi estimates “at least 18 children have died since July from hepatitis-induced jaundice alone.” Other illnesses among children in Rukban, as well as a smaller, nearby camp called Hadalat, include “asthma, diarrhea and diphtheria,” a sometimes fatal bacterial infection.

Settled in mid-2014 by Syrians fleeing eastern, Islamic State-captured territory, the berm encampments weren’t built to handle communicable bacteria and viruses. Rukban was to be a temporary way station on the way into Jordan.

Now, more than two years after the Islamic State swept across much of eastern Syria, sewage and piles of trash are overflowing in Rukban. Frigid winter temperatures are setting in. Disease continues to spread as a result, while a hepatitis outbreak is especially impacting children, according to an Amnesty International report released in September.

Temperatures in the camp are now reaching to “below freezing” overnight, Ali, a resident of Rukban who helps run a local Facebook news page, told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “The air is filled with dust storms. At night the temperatures drop even more because of the desert climate.”

“People are starting to burn clothing, garbage and plastic bags in order to keep warm,” Ali said. “Last week, there was a major storm, and a young girl died of hypothermia.”

Her name was Fatima Waleed.

In a video of Fatima’s funeral, shared last week by the Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia, which runs a network of citizen journalists and activists in the berm, family members clad in black huddle around her makeshift gravesite, marked by a mound of rocks and sand.

 A dust storm engulfs Rukban on December 14. Photo courtesy of Ali, a camp resident.

Fatima isn’t the first berm resident to be buried after falling ill in recent weeks. At least dozens of other gravesites are dispersed across the area’s encampments, according to satellite imagery and another recent video recorded by activists from the Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia.

At least 24 of the burial sites belong to young children, killed by under-treated illnesses and contaminated food since June, Ali estimated.

The health of Rukban’s children is “continuing to deteriorate,” Ali said, as the camp’s sole clinic fails to provide even the most basic care.

“It can’t even be called a clinic,” he told Syria Direct. “The two people running it are a midwife and a medical student who never graduated. It often goes out of service due to a lack of supplies.”

A-Zoubi, the Jordanian doctor who monitors Rukban’s clinic, says the staff can’t even make proper diagnoses for their patients.  

“We only have nurses working in the clinic, which makes it difficult to get exact diagnoses” for sick children, a-Zoubi told Syria Direct. This makes it “impossible” to know any precise statistics on children’s health in the camp, he said.

“These people are searching for safety—even at the cost of facing hardship in the camp, and harsh conditions that are likely to become even worse as winter comes into full swing,” Mohammad al-Homsi, a citizen journalist who helps run the same Facebook news page as Ali, told Syria Direct on Wednesday.

‘Not a Jordanian problem’

An IED exploded near a Free Syrian Army (FSA) checkpoint just outside Rukban camp Saturday, killing five people, London-based pan-Arab daily Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported. Saturday’s was the third deadly bombing at the border camp, believed to have been carried out by Islamic State fighters.

The second car bombing came in October, solidifying fears of total isolation from water, food and medical supplies, Syria Direct reported at the time. The attack came just hours after the first aid delivery to Rukban in months.

Only three reported aid deliveries have made it to the berm since this summer, the latest on November 23, after UN officials reportedly reached a deal with the Jordanian government to allow provisional food, water and hygiene supplies delivered into Rukban.

Previously, without direct access to the berm, the UN’s World Food Program resorted in August to delivering basic food aid, including bread, via cranes stationed on the Jordanian side of the border.

For medical workers, however, the border closure means no access to people in dire need of care.

“I cannot touch my patients, I cannot stitch their wounds,” Dr. Natalie Thurtle, field leader of Doctors Without Borders’ “Berm Project” on the Jordanian side of Rukban, wrote in November on the organization’s website. It unclear whether the project is still operating, and in what capacity.

“I cannot give life-saving antibiotics…I cannot fix fix the hepatitis outbreak that I know has taken hold,”Thurtle wrote. “There is a moral imperative for Médecins Sans Frontières [Doctors Without Borders] to be granted access to this population.”

The International Committee of the Red Cross, which previously provided assistance to the berm, also criticized the ongoing border closure, calling humanitarian conditions along the border “unacceptable.”

Jordanian officials maintain that internal stability is their priority.

“There is a terrorist presence inside Rukban,” Jordan’s Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh told reporters in October. “We can’t risk exposing ourselves to any threats to Jordan’s security.”

Jordanian officials have been fearful of quietly growing IS influence in the kingdom since 2014, when the group captured large areas of Syria and neighboring Iraq.

On Sunday evening, an unknown number of armed men reportedly shot and killed at least nine people, including police officers and a Canadian tourist, at the Karak crusader castle, a popular tourist site 120km south of Amman. On Monday, no group had claimed responsibility. Sunday’s shootout was the largest such attack inside Jordan since 2005, when Al-Qaeda-affiliated suicide bombers killed 60 people in three hotels across Amman.

When asked in a June press conference, just one week after authorities first closed the border, whether Jordan was still capable of delivering food to people in the berm, despite security concerns, government spokesman Mohammad a-Momani told reporters that refugees there were “an international, not a Jordanian, problem.”

Camp residents say the closure is a deadly burden on them.

Despite Shadi’s death last month, his mother still has four other young sons to look after. As winter brings intense dust storms and frigid nights to the berm, none of her sons has access to adequate health care.

“The children here are dying because of malnutrition and simple illnesses,” Mudeehah, Shadi’s mother, told Syria Direct. “Nobody is doing anything about it.” 

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

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.