AMMAN: The photos are scarce. In one, a dozen or so women, young children and elderly men bite down on sandwiches as they crowd the inside of a bus. One of the passengers wears a red vest bearing the logo of the Syrian government’s Red Crescent organization, also known as SARC.
Another photo shows at least four green buses lined up on an otherwise empty stretch of desert highway.
According to Syrian state news agency SANA, which published the pictures on April 7, the buses carried hundreds of displaced people who had recently left in unprecedented numbers from the desolate Rukban camp.
The apparent end goal: reaching their hometowns back in rural Homs province, areas seized by pro-government forces in the years since residents originally fled the advances of the Islamic State (IS).
In Rukban, the intervening years have seen devastating hunger, bitterly cold winters and the spread of disease as what was once simply an isolated border crossing point with Jordan morphed into a sprawling settlement of mud homes holding tens of thousands of displaced Syrians.
The displacement camp came under increased international spotlight in recent months after the closure of a smuggling route last fall that once brought in vital supplies, including food and medicine. As winter set in, so did hunger and sickness, and two aid deliveries coordinated by the UN and SARC brought in supplies and vaccinations.
But the conversation has now shifted rapidly from planning aid deliveries—Russian and Syrian officials now talk in terms of evacuating Rukban’s roughly 40,000 displaced residents elsewhere, and dismantling the camp altogether.
In February, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it would oversee “humanitarian corridors” to allow transfer of Rukban residents to their hometowns.
According to the announcement, checkpoints on the outskirts of Rukban would open on “meet, receive, distribute and provide necessary assistance to internally displaced persons” who wish to leave the camp.
Now, after an especially brutal winter, Rukban residents, most of whom have endured years of harsh desert conditions in the camp, are beginning to leave in unprecedented numbers.
In the past week alone, several hundred Rukban residents are estimated to have voluntarily boarded vehicles out of the camp and made the crossing out of US- and opposition-run territory.
Though people have been sporadically leaving the camp on an individual basis for years, the convoys this month are the largest such returns from Rukban to date.
From there, they board the government’s green “evacuation” buses and head into government-controlled Homs province, a Rukban-based aid worker and a local journalist told Syria Direct earlier this week.
The green buses have for several years held a sharp symbolism among Syrians in opposition-held areas of the country, as the government has used them to ferry hundreds of thousands of people out of surrendered rebel pockets as it seized pocket after pocket of territory since 2016.
But Rukban is different. There is no bombardment campaign in this corner of desert—residents instead complain of growing hunger and despondency as they remain stranded in the midst of a complex geopolitical standoff.
The Syrian government’s green evacuation buses line a stretch of empty desert road near Rukban on April 7. Photo courtesy of SANA.
In the latest of the three semi-organized convoys that have taken place, unknown hundreds of people reached a Syrian government-controlled checkpoint on the outskirts of this desert “de-confliction zone” on Wednesday, and registered into a murky reconciliation process meant to resolve their status with Syrian authorities.
It is a process that involves riding privately owned trucks out of the camp and towards the first checkpoint demarcating government territory, then paying roughly $20 per person to get through, according to conversations with multiple Syrians still inside Rukban.
Once through, returnees are taken to a “shelter center” in Homs province, where they remain for roughly two weeks, according to Ahmad Zgheira, a member of one of Rukban’s local administrative councils. Several other camp residents spoke of similar reception centers.
Little is actually known about the procedures for those who have crossed, as communication is difficult from government-held territory.
But there are hints of what the beginning of that journey is like for those who decide to cross.
In one video posted early Wednesday afternoon by pro-opposition news outlet Step News Agency, a handful of trucks are lined up on what appears to be the outskirts of Rukban, still within the 55-kilometer zone of US- and opposition-controlled desert. Some of the trucks are piled high with wooden furniture, mattresses, blankets.
Others are packed with residents awaiting their departure from the camp. An unseen child yells out: “Bye!”
‘A lot of pressure on people’
Displaced Syrians began settling in the Rukban camp following IS’ takeover of much of the eastern Syrian desert after 2013. At Rukban, they hoped they could eventually cross into Jordan via a now shuttered border point.
Those hopes were largely dashed in 2016, when an IS-claimed car bomb killed several Jordanian soldiers at a nearby border outpost, prompting Amman to close the border completely and declare the area a military zone.
Rukban’s location, within a no man’s land along the Syrian-Jordanian border known as the “berm,” all but traps the tens of thousands of displaced people there. Crossing into Jordan is only an option for those in need of specialized medical care at a nearby UN clinic just across the border.
The desert immediately surrounding the camp is part of a 55km “deconfliction zone” set up by US forces. That area is nominally controlled by a US-backed opposition group operating out of the al-Tanf military base, which both the US and rebel fighters have claimed is a key part of their fight against IS.
Displaced Syrians living in Rukban who wish to go back to their hometowns grapple with a difficult decision. If they return, they fear they could face arrest or military conscription, which is required of Syrian men in areas of the country under Damascus’ authority.
But staying means facing endless food shortages, and questions over the future of this contested part of Syria.
For the majority of camp residents who have—thus far—remained inside Rukban, there is little in this remote stretch of desert to sustain them for much longer. Medicine, and even basic food items, are in desperate short supply, residents told Syria Direct.
“There is almost no food or fuel in the camp right now,” one local camp official said. “Even vegetables, it’s the same [shortage].” He was among those who attended a meeting last month with government and Russian officials, as well as UN and SARC representatives, to discuss the fate of Rukban.
It is unclear just what that fate might be. The few supplies are still available in the camp’s cinder block market stalls are sold at vastly inflated prices that are unaffordable to many residents, the camp official said.
“People are now resorting to pre-made food, because they are unable to cook [without fuel],” he told Syria Direct.
“There is a lot of pressure on people in the camp.”