Trapped in desert between Syria and Jordan, thousands of displaced fear total isolation after suicide attack

AMMAN: A recent car bombing near an isolated camp for displaced Syrians highlights the continuing difficulties of providing security and basic services to tens of thousands of people stranded in a no-man’s land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders.

On Sunday evening, a truck bomb exploded near a field hospital 1km northwest of the Rukban camp, one of two makeshift settlements now home to between 50,000 and 75,000 displaced Syrians within a demilitarized zone on the Jordanian border.

The suicide attack, which killed one Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter and injured three more, occurred less than four hours after a shipment of food and medicine entered the camp from Jordan, the first humanitarian delivery to Rukban in more than two months, a spokesman with an (FSA) militia responsible for security in the camp told Syria Direct Tuesday.

[Ed.: Initial media reports indicated that the blast killed three people and injured as many as 20, claims Syria Direct’s FSA source said were incorrect.]

Video footage, uploaded to YouTube Monday by FSA rebels in the camp, shows the scorched undercarriage of the alleged bomber’s vehicle along with the remains of a bombed-out guardhouse. The cameraman points to what appears to be burnt human flesh: “That’s the pig that did this.”

 The remnants of Sunday’s truck bomb. Photo courtesy of JAA Media Office.

The Islamic State has not claimed responsibility for the Sunday bombing at Rukban, but both FSA officials and displaced Syrians on the border told Syria Direct this week that no one else “has an interest” in attacking the camp.

The FSA spokesman, Mohamad Adnan of the Free Tribes’ Army, Jaysh Ahrar al-Ashayer, which is a brigade operating under FSA command, said the attack was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on one of his commanders, who adamantly opposes the Islamic State and maintains close ties to the Jordanian government.

“There was a leak that Sheikh Rakan was present during the aid delivery and that he was the target of the attack,” said Adnan.

Sheikh Rakan al-Khudeir is the general commander of the Free Tribes’ Army, a confederation of tribal militias trained by Jordan. The Free Tribes’ Army began providing security and coordinating aid deliveries for Rukban four months ago, said the spokesman, adding that his group fights IS in the Lajat region of eastern Daraa. In August, an improvised explosive device, allegedly planted by the Islamic State, killed a Free Tribes’ Army commander and five fighters in Daraa.

Adnan confirmed that Rakan was in charge of coordinating Sunday’s aid delivery but declined to divulge whether the Sheikh was in the vicinity of the attack. Rakan is still alive, the spokesman said.

Rukban residents, almost all of whom fled IS-controlled territory in Raqqa, Deir e-Zor and eastern Homs, told Syria Direct that the attack on the Free Tribes’ Army is part of IS’s broader strategy to sabotage any efforts to improve the security and humanitarian situation at the camp.

The “attack is merely a game played by IS, a way to get Jordan to cancel the deliveries that are supposed to enter the camp this week,” Ahmed a-Dafai, a citizen journalist in Rukban told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

 Rukban camp on Monday. Photo courtesy of Ahmed a-Daafi.

“If the camp is no longer safe, and we can’t get aid, residents will be forced to go to IS-controlled areas,” said Dafai.

In June, an Islamic State car-bomb attack at a Jordanian guard post outside Rukban led authorities in Amman to close the border area and freeze all humanitarian operations there.

Following the June border closure, conditions at Rukban and Hadalat, a second, smaller camp located 50km to the west, quickly deteriorated, with residents immediately losing access to medical care and food. In August, an outbreak of hepatitis killed at least 18 infants at Rukban, Syria Direct reported this month.

With the border closed, Jordan allowed a one-time entrance of aid to Rukban this past August, with boxes of food and hygiene kits lifted across the border by a 70-meter-high crane. No aid workers were permitted entry to the camp to supervise distribution.

After months of negotiations between the UN and government officials, Jordan announced last week that it would henceforth make aid deliveries by crane on a routine basis, though the government would “maintain its sealed border policy,” the Jordan Times reported on October 9.

Rukban residents fear that the most recent attack will cause Jordan to reverse its decision to resume aid deliveries.

The Jordanian government finally agreed to aid deliveries after months of pressure, said Dafai, the citizen journalist, but “this bombing might change their calculus.”

“Everyone is afraid—and hungry,” he said.

An Amman-based aid worker with ties to Rukban told Syria Direct Wednesday that Sunday’s bombing is unlikely to impact the government decision to resume aid deliveries because the attack took place in Syrian territory, outside the demilitarized zone.

Nevertheless, those responsible for defending the camp say the chance of future attacks is high, given the difficulty of securing an informal settlement with tens of thousands of people in a barren desert.

“The dense population, desert climate and lack of formal infrastructure makes our work difficult,” said Adnan, the FSA spokesman.

Both Rukban and Hadalat are open camps, with people coming and going. Dafai and other residents said that makes it hard to weed out “IS infiltrators” and fend off further attacks.

“The camp is huge; more than 50,000 people live here. It’s a city where people come and go all the time,” said Dafai.

“No one knows who is an IS infiltrator.”

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.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Jessica Page, Reporter/Translator

Jessica was a 2013-2014 Georgetown University Qatar Scholarship Program fellow in Doha, Qatar. She received her BA in both Arabic and International & Area Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. She has worked and studied in Jordan, Oman, and Qatar.

Orion Wilcox

Orion Wilcox was a 2014-2015 CASA fellow in Amman, Jordan where he interned with the UNRWA Jordan Field Office. He received his BA in Economics and Arabic language from the University of Mississippi. Following the CASA program, Orion worked as a freelance translator and interpreter in Amman.