After repeat delays, long-awaited aid convoy reaches Rukban camp amid critical food, medicine shortages

SARC personnel near trucks carrying humanitarian aid to Rukban camp. Photo courtesy of SARC.

AMMAN: UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent aid workers began distributing humanitarian aid to tens of thousands of displaced Syrians stranded in Rukban on Sunday, one day after the first humanitarian convoy in 10 months reached the remote camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Sunday’s aid distribution comes amid weeks of growing shortages of food, medicine and other key supplies among Rukban camp’s estimated 50,000 inhabitants, worsened in recent weeks by inclement weather as well as the closure—allegedly by pro-government forces—of a major supply route through surrounding the desert.

Critical shortages of food and life-saving medication reportedly caused the deaths of several camp residents in recent weeks.

The UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) convoy—the first aid delivery to reach Rukban camp in 10 months since a crane-borne shipment from Jordanian territory in January—arrived at the Syrian-Jordanian border via Damascus on Saturday. The delivery marked the first time that aid reached the camp from government-held territory, as previous aid operations had originated from neighboring Jordan.

The latest delivery contained thousands of aid parcels with food, water, and hygiene kits as well as life-saving medicines and vaccines, UN spokesperson Fadwa Baroud said in a video released on Saturday.

A SARC employee unloads a truck near Rukban camp. Photo courtesy of SARC.

SARC meanwhile posted a video of its aid workers setting up tent clinics in preparation for an anti-polio vaccination campaign meant to target 10,000 children under five years of age living in the remote camp.

Rukban camp is a temporary home to tens of thousands of displaced people, many of whom fled their hometowns in central and eastern Syria during the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2013 and 2014.

The camp’s inhabitants today live in threadbare tents and mud houses sprawled out across a no-man’s-land between the Syrian and Jordanian border lines known as the “berm.”

Rukban is also located within a small, 55-kilometer radius exclusion zone extending around the nearby al-Tanf military outpost close to the Syrian-Iraqi border. US-backed rebel forces, alongside American military personnel, maintain a presence within the designated military zone.

US warplanes have previously targeted pro-government forces approaching the 55km zone, part of which sits on an international highway linking Damascus and the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Photo of aid delivered on Saturday to Rukban camp. Photo courtesy of Khudour al-Hussein.

Some 70 UN and SARC vehicles passed through the 55km zone on Saturday with US-backed rebel factions Maghawir a-Thawra and the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade providing escort, a rebel spokesperson told Syria Direct on Saturday night.

Rebel forces “helped unload the vehicles and provide security,” before the convoy then “returned to regime territory,” said Ahmad Abdo spokesperson Saeed Saif.

Sunday’s distribution was set to reach a number of districts within the sprawling Rukban camp, with each zone selecting a representative to facilitate the delivery of aid parcels, he added.

The humanitarian assistance was an “important achievement,” UN spokesperson Baroud said in a video released on Saturday, but added that without sustainable aid the situation is likely to worsen.

Whether or not the convoy would actually reach Rukban camp had remained in doubt following repeated delays. The delivery was scheduled to arrive at Rukban on October 25 before it was called off for safety reasons. It was then delayed again on October 27 for unknown “security reasons,” Syria Direct reported last week.

Political wrangling between US-backed rebels and the Syrian government, as well as their respective foreign allies, over the presence of American forces in southern Syria has created a deadlock that has stifled aid operations to the area. Both sides have repeatedly accused the other for impeding humanitarian aid access.

Amman has also shirked responsibility for aid deliveries to the camp, with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi previously stating that Rukban is a Syrian issue—and not the responsibility of his government.

However, UN officials warn that the situation for Rukban's civilians could worsen further without sustainable humanitarian access.

“Without regular and uninterrupted access the situation of people here…will only further deteriorate as the winter cold sets in,” UN spokesperson Baroud said.

“We call on all parties to support us with continued safe access [to Rukban].”

Ammar Hamou

Ammar Hammou is from Douma city in outer Damascus. He studied journalism at Damascus University and left Syria in 2011. Follow Ammar on Twitter: @Ammar_Hamou.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.