AMMAN—Samir al-Homsi’s single-room mud house is thirty meters apart from his nearest neighbor in al-Rukban camp for displaced Syrians. “Most of the neighbors have left,” al-Homsi told Syria Direct, making “the neighborhood a depressing place.”
According to UN statistics released in September, 75 percent of al-Rukban’s 75,000 residents have left the camp since mid-2015 and only 12,700 remain. This significant population decline is reflected in the deterioration of social life in the camp as well as in its rapidly disintegrating economy.
Although winter is approaching, leaving the camp is not an option for 31-year-old al-Homsi and his family of three children. “I wouldn’t stay in the camp in the midst of these conditions unless we receive a 100 percent guarantee protecting our lives,” he said.
Al-Homsi fled the city of al-Qaryatain in the eastern countryside of Homs in late 2015 to escape the Islamic State (IS) and Syrian government forces. "The group [IS] entered and destroyed the city, and the regime bombed it, [so] we ran away from both of them," he added.
Today, al-Homsi has no choice but to return to areas controlled by government forces, but his fear of being forced into military conscription is preventing him from doing so.
The UN announced the completion of its joint mission with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to distribute food and supplies in al-Rukban camp at the end of September and added that the first group of 329 residents of the camp have been evacuated to shelters allocated by the Syrian government in Homs province.
According to a previous UN poll, 37 percent of the al-Rukban’s residents were predicted to leave but the percentage of people who actually left was below expectations. This prompted “SARC, [who supervised the operation] to prevent media activists in the camp from documenting the operation,” Imad Ghali, a media activist, told Syria Direct.
Additionally, while Russia is promoting the approaching date of the camp’s dismantling, following the transfer of its residents to areas controlled by government forces and allied militias, a source in the civil administration of the camp who spoke to Syria Direct on condition of anonymity stressed Russia’s inability to dismantle the camp, even by force.
“If that was indeed within [Russia’s] capacity,” he said, “it would have done so when it opened the crossings [for the departure of the residents of al-Rukban] in February.”
Alongside the challenges Russia faces in dismantling al-Rukban camp, al-Tanf military base has also proved to be an obstacle; it falls under the control of the US-led International Coalition and hosts various Syrian opposition militant groups.
After Russia failed to force out residents of the camp through “humanitarian corridors,” it resorted to holding a meeting with tribal elders representing the camp alongside attendance by Syrian government officers.
Said Saif, a spokesperson for the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, an FSA-affiliated armed group, told Syria Direct that “Russian and UN plans in al-Rukban have failed.” The Syrian opposition factions in al-Tanf “have no leverage over the International Coalition to stabilize the situation for the camp’s residents,” he added, because “the coalition’s military aims are linked to the fight against IS.”
These factions, including the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, Maghawir al-Thawra and others, have not met the demands of al-Rukban residents to open a route into opposition-held areas in northern Syria, rather than relocating them to government-controlled areas. “The transfer of residents to the north is still on the table for discussion between the opposition factions and the American forces in al-Tanf,” Saif said.
The International Coalition’s media center reaffirmed its stance in response to an inquiry from Syria Direct, saying that the role of the coalition in al-Tanf is to train opposition factions and provide them with advice to defeat IS.
At the beginning of 2015, groups of displaced people from the eastern countryside of Homs traveled south, seeking refuge in Jordan. The Jordanian authorities had already placed severe restrictions on Syrians attempting to enter the country at unofficial crossings in eastern Jordan, fearing that IS members might take advantage of the opportunity to enter the country. Thousands of Syrians found themselves stranded on the desert bordering Jordan, and as a result, al-Rukban emerged as a de facto IDP camp with minimal services.
However, the nostalgia expressed by the camp’s residents for those early days reveals just how severely the situation in the camp has deteriorated since then. The “first four months in the camp were the most beautiful,” Abu Salim Muhammad recounted. “Everything was available then; later things went downhill until everything became miserable.”
Abu Muhammad, 45-years-old, who is originally from the town of Mahin in the eastern countryside of Homs, told Syria Direct that he is now displaced again, but under harsher conditions.
“The camp residents overcame the circumstances and founded a community for themselves, and married people from different cities and towns that had arrived in al-Rukban,” he said. However, “forcing people to leave the camp with no guarantees has separated them from their families yet again.”
While Abu Muhammad still prefers his mud-house in the camp to life in areas under Syrian government control, he doesn’t know whether he will see his daughter again after she married a resident of a different city and left al-Rukban with her husband.
The vacuum left by the mass exodus of camp residents has led to a sense of “loss and emptiness,” according Ghali. Neighbors who he spent years getting to know, and whose children brought a vibrant and fun atmosphere to the neighborhood, moved out of the camp and “left a vacuum in our lives,” he explained.
To fill the gap and adapt to the camp’s new conditions, some of the remaining residents “dismantled their mud houses and tents in the empty neighborhoods and moved them to where the community is still present,” said al-Homsi, who is contemplating relocating to a new neighborhood.
Camp services and aid dwindling
In what seems to be a move aimed at encouraging the disbandment of al-Rukban, Russia promised its residents a safe return to areas under Syrian government control while restricting aid to the camp.
Russian-backed Syrian government forces have tightened the siege of al-Rukban, cutting off smuggling routes that had previously allowed vital goods, like food and medicine, to enter the camp.
Despite there being two political authorities in the camp, the “Local Council” and the “Civil Administration,” their roles are mainly limited to improving the supervision and coordination of aid distribution. In addition to the camp’s remote location, the ongoing siege has left the two governing bodies with little to offer in terms of supplies and services.
Drinking water provided from pipes originating in a reservoir in Jordan is one of the few services available to the residents of al-Rukban. There are two medical centers operating in the camp—Sham Medical Center and Palmyra Medical Center— but “they both depend on two nurses; there are no doctors in the camp,” the director of Palmyra Medical Center, Shukri Shahab, told Syria Direct.
Moreover, educational services in the camp “depend on individual efforts,” Ahmad al-Zaghira from the education office of the Civil Administration told Syria Direct. “There is no support specifically for education in the camp, and the educational staff, including the teachers and administrators, are working on a voluntary basis.”
Last year, there were 3,000 students across 89 small rooms made of clay; today, there are only 1,000 students across 30 rooms, al-Zaghira said.
This report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh, Will Christou, and Calvin Wilder.