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In Rukban, rumors of dead, mistreated returnees leave displaced residents mulling an uncertain homecoming

The rumors were unconfirmed: two men who had returned to Syrian government territory from Rukban camp via a Russian-backed “humanitarian corridor” were reportedly shot dead by security personnel over the weekend, after attempting to escape a government holding center in Homs province.

15 April 2019

AMMAN: The rumors were unconfirmed: two men who had returned to Syrian government territory from Rukban camp via a Russian-backed “humanitarian corridor” were reportedly shot dead by security personnel over the weekend, after attempting to escape a government holding center in Homs province.

The men, reportedly from the central Syrian city of Palmyra, were among the estimated hundreds of displaced Syrians to have boarded government buses away from Rukban this month.

Syria Direct could not confirm the reports, which quickly spread over the weekend among Rukban residents—some of whom are already mulling a complicated return from the desert settlement back into government-held territory, after years living in displacement.

Unprecedented numbers of people are leaving behind the desolate camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border, a temporary home to some 40,000 displaced Syrians living without steady access to food, water and medicine in the desert. Most have been living in the makeshift camp for years, suffering through harsh winters and regular outbreaks of disease with precious few supplies.

For some of the returnees who left in recent days, it was a matter of escaping what residents have long referred to as a “slow death” within the camp.

Rukban is located within a desert zone between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm.” Thousands of people began fleeing towards the area when the Islamic State (IS) seized vast swathes of eastern Syria in 2014. From there, they had hoped to then cross into Jordan—until an IS-claimed car bombing killed several Jordanian soldiers at a nearby border outpost in 2016, prompting Amman to close the border and declare the surrounding area a military zone.

Trapped in Rukban, displaced residents slowly transformed the “berm” into a sprawl of mud homes and cinder block market stalls.

There are now few good options out in the desert.

Returning to Syrian territory is difficult. It means leaving a 55-kilometer zone controlled by US and opposition forces, and entering into an open desert interspersed with checkpoints manned by pro-government militias.

Staying inside the camp is also a gamble.

Before the war, there were no hospitals in this patch of desert—no schools, towns, grocery stores or other basic services. A lone highway winds its way through the empty landscape, a route that once connected Damascus with Baghdad.

Winters are bitterly cold, with torrential downpours turning the camp’s dirt alleyways into mud. More than a dozen children, many of them newborns, are estimated to have died in the past winter alone. Scorching summers make Rukban ripe for disease.

A handful of aid deliveries have sporadically supplied the camp with desperately needed crates of food and hygiene supplies, as well as vaccinations—but usually only on a once-yearly basis. A nearby UN-administered medical clinic across the border in Jordan has provided relief for those in need of specialized care.

But now the conversation has turned towards dismantling the camp altogether, as the Syrian government and Russia push for evacuating residents via “humanitarian corridors” first announced in February.

More than a thousand  Rukban residents have now left via the corridors since the beginning of April, according to local camp officials, with families piling into privately owned trucks before crossing government-run checkpoints. Once across, they board the government’s green evacuation buses towards Homs city, according to those still in the camp.

The numbers of returnees heading back into government-held territory this month are unprecedented—and they represent a shift towards organized evacuations, as opposed to the handful of individual returns that have taken place in the past several years, usually with the help of desert smugglers.

Those who have made the return have entered into the unknown. Residents still inside Rukban told Syria Direct that cell phone communication with returnees is virtually cut off once they cross into government territory. They speak of families separated upon arrival, with women and children held apart from men.

Their stories are virtually impossible to confirm.

Two representatives from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), a Syrian government-affiliated aid agency present during the evacuation bus transfers from the camp, could not provide further information on the holding centers.

A SARC statement on Friday said the organization’s relief teams were “waiting tirelessly on the only humanitarian exit for the families getting out of Rukban camp.”

According to the statement, SARC had “met the needs of 2,254 people headed out of the camp toward makeshift shelters in Homs,” where volunteers were reportedly providing aid.

A representative from OCHA, the UN’s humanitarian access agency that has been involved in past aid deliveries to Rukban, could not be reached for comment before publication.

The reported shootings, too, are as yet unconfirmed.

“This whole issue [of returns] is surrounded by mystery,” one medical worker inside the camp told Syria Direct.

“I have friends [inside the shelter centers], but communication with them is very sparse. It’s difficult.”

The medical worker did not provide details on how he was able to communicate with his friends.

Nevertheless, rumors over the reported shootings—as well as conditions inside the Homs reception centers—raise questions over the safety of the returns process as Russian and Syrian government forces continue to advocate for the “humanitarian corridors.”

With political pressure mounting, the future of Rukban has likely never been more in doubt. But, left with dwindling supplies inside the camp, residents have said they are not necessarily deterred by the rumors.

Even as news of the reported shootings first surfaced over the weekend, another convoy made its way out of the camp in spite of residents’ initial fears—this time carrying more than a thousand people, according to one camp official.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.

“This is something that has become normal,” camp resident Rami told Syria Direct on condition of anonymity. “We’ve gotten used to [rumors like this], as Syrians.”

He has ruled out returning to his hometown in rural Homs province, now under renewed government control. There, many camp residents fear military conscription, or political retribution for perceived ties to the opposition.

Though Rami himself has no desire to return, he explained that he made a choice to speak with Syria Direct using a pseudonym because “if things keep going the way they are [in Rukban], I’ll have no choice but to send my family back to the regime.”

“I’m just hoping for any solution that doesn’t involve returning to regime territory,” he added.

Others described mounting pressure on camp residents, as it remained unclear whether another aid delivery would come.

“Our conditions here are very difficult,” said Abu Said, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s clear that the end of the Rukban camp is a decision that’s being made above our heads.”

And with only a trickle of supplies making its way into the camp via desert smugglers, food and other vital necessities are running low. An especially brutal winter has also left residents questioning how much longer they can withstand harsh conditions in the desolate camp.

One camp official suggested to Syria Direct that residents were boarding the government’s buses not because they believed they would be guaranteed safety, “but rather because of the hunger.”

“There is nothing in the camp, no aid, nothing,” the official said. “People want to leave this camp alive.”

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