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Medical and food blockades deepen the ordeal of al-Rukban’s forgotten Syrian inhabitants

In addition to the food blockade imposed by the Assad regime since 2016, al-Rukban camp, in the no-man's-land along the Syrian-Jordanian border, suffers a medical blockade following the close of the UNICEF medical point on the Jordanian side of the border in March 2020.

5 July 2021

AMMAN — “My son is fighting for his life in my arms, but I can’t do anything for him,” Umm Maher, who lives in al-Rukban camp in the no-man’s-land along the Syrian-Jordanian border, said. Maher, just 15 months old,  suffers from “a testicular hernia that has turned into a large swelling, accompanied by vomiting and a high fever,” his mother told Syria Direct.

However, Maher is not the only one in the camp whose health condition requires immediate surgery. There are “three other children with testicular hernias,” according to the director of the camp’s Palmyra medical point, nurse Shukry Shehab, “as well as two women who are also in critical condition, suffering from uterine fibroids. Their conditions are exacerbated by continuous uterine bleeding.”

On June 11, the Public and Political Relations Authority of the Syrian Badia in al-Rukban camp appealed to Jordanian monarch Abdullah II to allow patients with “critical conditions—women and children—requiring surgery” to enter Jordanian hospitals. 

Without access to Jordanian hospitals, patients would be forced “to go to regime areas.” The statement explained that “all those compelled to go to those areas for health reasons would be threatened with arrest or reprisals the regime practices. 

“[Regime hospitals are] human slaughterhouses . . . that is, if you can reach them without being arrested or killed.”

Medical blockade

Jordan closed its border with al-Rukban in 2016 following a terrorist attack by the Islamic State (ISIS) against Jordanian armed forces in the area. This has put the camp, which currently contains 12,700 people, under a food blockade due to the Assad regime and Russia’s insistence on not delivering food aid to the camp through Syrian territory. The last UN relief convoy to enter al-Rukban through Syrian territory was in 2019. 

With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, a medical blockade was added to the previous blockade. As part of Jordan’s precautionary measures against the pandemic, the UNICEF medical point on the Jordanian side of the border has been closed since March 18, 2020. The last medical supplies delivery to the camp by the UN and the Syrian Red Crescent was in February 2020 and included basic medical materials. 

Al-Rukban contains two medical points overseen by nurses that provide emergency services and medications and where natural births occur. As such, the UNICEF medical point, located five kilometers inside Jordanian territory, was the only center performing surgeries, providing medical examinations by doctors, and transferring critical cases to Jordanian hospitals. 

After being born by cesarean section, Maher has had problems “with fluid in his lungs, leading to difficulty breathing and forcing him to stay in the premature infants [section] in al-Hanan Hospital in Jordan,” Umm Maher said. “We discovered a testicular hernia one month after he was born,” she added. But “the doctor at the [UNICEF] medical point told me that no surgery could be done for children under one-year-old, and when my child turned one, the medical point had closed.” 

Maryam, 26, is also suffering from “continuous uterine bleeding for two months due to fibroids” and “needs urgent surgery to remove the fibroids,” she told Syria Direct. However, her biggest worry is for her seven-year-old son, Mahmoud, who has epilepsy. 

Two years ago, Mahmoud’s epilepsy symptoms began “with a general weakness in the body and an inability to move, which developed into episodes of fainting lasting 30 seconds,” his father recounted.

After months of suffering, since Mahmoud’s condition “was not critical, although he was losing consciousness for hours, he was transferred to the Jordanian hospitals and given neurological tests,” his father added. “He was given neurological medications, on which he greatly improved and his epileptic seizures stopped.” 

But after the UNICEF medical point was closed, “my son stopped getting medicine, and I started to reduce the dose for him so it would last as long as possible.” 

With the continued closure of the UNICEF medical point, Mahmoud’s father was forced to reach out to a doctor living in northwest Syria to prescribe his son an alternative medicine to the one that ran out, “especially since the medicine previously prescribed to Mahmoud from the Jordanian hospitals is only sold in pharmacies in regime areas with a prescription from a doctor living in areas of [regime] control exclusively,” Abu Mahmoud added. 

The father was able, through a smuggler, to bring an alternative over-the-counter medication from regime-controlled areas, but it has not been effective for Mahmoud. “His [epileptic] seizures returned, more often, up to 14 times a day. He would lose consciousness for 30 seconds, during which I felt like I’d completely lost my child.” 

Stuck in suffering

Contacted by Syria Direct, UNICEF Middle East and North Africa Communications Director Juliette Touma could not provide information about whether or not the UNICEF point would resume its work.

While Syria Direct was unable to obtain a response from the Jordanian government on this matter, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, in a tweet on April 20, 2020, reiterated the country’s position that al-Rukban camp “is not Jordan’s responsibility” and that the camp’s needs can be met “from inside Syria.” Safadi stressed that Jordan’s priority is the health of its citizens: “We are fighting COVID-19, and we will not risk it by allowing anyone from the camp to enter.” 

Although the available information does not indicate that the medical point on the Jordanian side of the border is close to opening, nor that critical cases in al-Rukban will be transferred to Jordanian hospitals soon, Maryam, Abu Mahmoud and Umm Maher agree that treatment in regime hospitals is not an option. 

“I am not safe in regime-controlled areas,” said Umm Maher, who worked as a volunteer in the camp with the team coordinating with the UNICEF medical point. “Many of those who went there to treat their families were detained and interrogated. I don’t want to lose myself and my child together.” 

In the same context, Abu Mahmoud expressed his refusal to send his son Mahmoud and wife Maryam to regime hospitals, as they are “human slaughterhouses,” as he put it, “that is if you can reach them without being arrested or killed.” 

The Assad regime previously arrested 174 people returning from al-Rukban camp to shelters in Homs province following an announcement by the Russian Ministry of Defense in 2019 that it had opened its own crossings in the vicinity of the camp to receive and assist those wanting to leave for regime areas. 

Abu Mahmoud still hopes that his wife and child will be allowed to go to Jordanian hospitals. “I don’t know what we did to the world to be banished and blockaded in this way,” he said. 

This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Mateo Nelson.

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