AMMAN- Abu Mohammed harvests vegetables from his impromptu farm, squeezed into just a few square meters of space inside al-Rukban camp. Today’s harvest of zucchini and eggplant will feed his family tonight.

Abu Mohammed lives in al-Rukban and has faced increasing difficulty in securing food for his family of four amid an increasingly dire humanitarian situation in the camp.

“The situation is getting worse,” he explains to Syria Direct. “All of the ways [of obtaining food] have been closed off, and I [still] have to feed my family.” 

Raising crops in the desert of al-Rukban, which is situated on the Syrian-Jordanian border, is not an easy task given the area’s harsh and arid climate.

However, earlier this year, al-Rukban’s residents began to experiment with farming as an alternative to the unaffordable, scanty produce sold in the camp’s market. The size of the farms vary from small, personal plots meant to feed families, to a few acres of crops to be sold in the market.

“Despite the crop yield declining and its cost increasing, [farming] has become much cheaper than the vegetables that are sold in the camp’s market,” Abu Mohammad explains. “The price of a kilo of eggplants, zucchinis or tomatoes is 600 Syrian lira ($1.17), while a kilo of peppers is 1000 Lira ($1.95) and garlic is 2000 Syrian Lira ($3.88).” 

Al-Rukban camp has seen a huge increase in the price of food and basic supplies in 2019, as the Russian and Syrian-government siege prevents the entry of aid convoys and smugglers, the latter of which previously provided vital supplies to the camp.

The Jordanian government, for its part, refuses to allow aid to pass through its border to al-Rukban, seeing the camp as the responsibility of the Syrian government since it is located within Syrian borders. 

Najat Rochdi, Senior Humanitarian Adviser to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, warned on the 19th of May that “starvation is already starting,” and that “no [aid] convoy has reached [the camp] since February 2019.” 

Barley crops in one of Omar al-Homsi’s fields, July 09, 2019 (Omar al-Homsi)

Omar al-Homsi, a media activist in al-Rukban, cultivated about 25 acres of barley for animal feed this year. “Previously, the people [of al-Rukban] thought that farming was impossible. After some people succeeded this year, farming became widespread among the residents. Some people, [however], failed at growing crops because the environment [here] is not suitable [to agriculture], in addition to the lack of funds for proper irrigation.” 

Although barley is considered a “safe” crop to grow, as it produces consistent yields, only a few camp residents grow it. “It’s expensive and it’s only used to feed the sheep,”al-Homsi said.

The camp’s residents are facing numerous difficulties as they fight to stave off an approaching famine, especially those determined to stay in al-Rukban and not return to government-controlled territories. 

“The high temperature, salinity of the soil, and lack of water and agricultural tools- such as seeds, fertilizer, and pesticides - makes farming extremely hard,” Abu Mohammad says. 

In order to save water and money, some residents only irrigate their crops every other day and have resorted to using sheep manure as fertilizer.

 

Men inspect a combine harvester that was brought by one of al-Rukban residents, July 04, 2019 (Omar al-Homsi)

Al-Rukban’s residents suffer from frequent water shortages and cutoffs, forcing them to buy water unsuitable for drinking extracted from remote wells and marshes, rather than the regular water supply pumped from wells along the berm on the Jordanian side of the border. 

“A barrel of water costs me 300 Syrian Lira ($0.58), and the area that I’m growing needs five barrels daily,” Abu Mohammad says. Thus, “some residents grow crops that don’t need irrigation and can grow just off the humidity, like zucchinis and green melon.” 

Unlike al-Homsi, most residents are unable to afford to grow barley, as it needs substantial irrigation. “Each donum [about a quarter acre] costs 1200 Syrian Lira in seeds ($2.32), 1000 Lira in farming costs ($1.94), and between 3000 and 6000 Lira to harvest ($5.82-11.64),” al-Homsi says. “A kilo of barley is sold in regime areas for [only] 100 Lira ($0.19), which is why only those who have sheep grow it [as feed] or send it to government territory if they are able.” 

Al-Rukban has seen thousands of its residents return to government-held areas in recent months as a result of the deteriorating humanitarian conditions in the camp. Returnees travel through so-called “humanitarian corridors” set up by the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria last February. 

“At the end of June, the number of residents in the camp was no more than 12,000,” an official in the civil administration of al-Rukban told Syria Direct. “This is down from the 40,000 people who were in the camp prior to the opening of the crossings and the [government-maintained] prevention of humanitarian aid from entering.”