Ongoing closure of Rukban smuggling route leaves thousands of displaced Syrians fearing ‘siege’-like conditions

Displaced Syrians protest conditions in Rukban on October 10. Photo by Omar a-Shawi.

AMMAN: A vital smuggling route that once allowed truckloads of food and medical supplies to enter the remote Rukban displacement camp on Syria’s southeastern border with Jordan remained shut for a 10th day on Sunday, according to camp residents and diplomatic sources.

The cost of basic goods within Rukban has skyrocketed as a result of the ongoing closure, with residents warning of the onset of “siege”-like conditions in the isolated border settlement.

The price of tomatoes has more than doubled since before the closure earlier this month, while the price of flour has nearly doubled, explained camp resident Khudour al-Hussein, who runs an aid distribution point inside Rukban.

Abu Hamdan, another Rukban resident, also told Syria Direct that the price of tomatoes has increased twofold in the past 10 days.

Meanwhile, the road closure is impacting supplies of medicine and other basic goods. Medicine was running low in al-Hussein’s distribution point on Sunday, with “no way to renew supplies if they run out,” he told Syria Direct.

Al-Hussein added that “one or two” vehicles were still passing into the camp nightly, compared to “dozens” before the cutoff.

For years, Rukban residents have relied on an informal smuggling route through which Bedouin traders trucked in food and medical supplies from Syrian government territory via a nearby desert highway. Although the price of the smuggled goods was expensive for the tens of thousands of displaced Syrians living in the camp—many of whom rely on aid and money transfers from family members abroad—items brought in by smugglers were vital for survival in the remote desert settlement.

However, pro-government forces shut that route to almost all traffic 10 days ago, Rukban residents told Syria Direct on Sunday, although the exact reason for the closure remains unclear.

Rukban sits within a barren no-man’s-land known as the “berm” between the Syrian and Jordanian borders, in a corner of southeastern Syrian desert nominally controlled by US-backed forces operating out of a nearby military base at al-Tanf.

The surrounding Badia region, a remote expanse of sparsely populated desert stretching across much of central Syria, is under the control of Syrian government forces and allied militias—making entering Rukban from government-held territory a risky affair. The Syrian-Jordanian border just south of the makeshift camp is also shut except for urgent medical cases.

The last official aid delivery to reach the camp’s 50,000 displaced residents was some nine months ago, via Jordan.

‘Siege’ conditions

Conditions have markedly deteriorated in the Rukban camp since last month, when a rebel group present on the Syrian side of the border first cut off access to a vital UN-run medical clinic in nearby Jordanian territory, camp residents and a Western diplomatic source told Syria Direct.

Displaced Syrians in need of urgent medical care, including C-sections and other operations, were left stranded in the camp, which contains a network of only minimally stocked clinics and no licensed doctors.

At least one camp resident, a 13-year-old boy suffering acute malnutrition and hepatitis A, died during the cutoff in access, according to medical sources inside Rukban as well as local news outlets.

Medical sources inside the camp meanwhile told Syria Direct that at least two infant children have already died as a result of the cutoff.

Rukban residents protest camp conditions on October 10. Photo by Omar a-Shawi.

Though access to the UN facility resumed late last month, it was soon followed by the reported closure of the desert smuggling route around the beginning of October.

A Western diplomatic source told Syria Direct on Sunday that while they were “not sure” exactly which group was responsible for the ongoing road closure, “a lot” of Syrian checkpoints manned by pro-government forces and Hezbollah fighters are present in the desert immediately surrounding the US-backed rebels’ al-Tanf zone in which Rukban is located.

Camp residents and shopkeepers who spoke to Syria Direct last week blamed pro-government forces stationed outside zone for the closure.

The exact timing and reason behind the ongoing road cutoff remains unclear, though a source with knowledge of the situation said pro-government forces were likely enforcing the closure to “put pressure” on international powers with a stake in the al-Tanf zone. The source requested anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press.

The ongoing closure has left residents questioning how much longer they can endure living conditions in Rukban. Ahmad Zgheira, a member of Rukban’s local council, described the situation on Sunday as a “siege.”

For weeks, there has been growing talk of potential evacuations from Rukban to either government-held or rebel-held territory elsewhere in Syria, although no evacuations have taken place until now.

Now-defunct rebel group Liwa Shuhada al-Qaryatayn announced in a statement last month it was preparing to evacuate its fighters, alongside civilians “who desired to do so,” to northern Syria. The convoy would include the “elderly, women and children,” the statement said, but did not specify a timeline for evacuations.

An official Jordanian source told Syria Direct on Sunday that Amman was “in discussions” with the Russian government over “de-establishment” of Rukban—an operation that, theoretically, would include providing safe passage for camp residents to return to their hometowns inside Syria. The source did not provide further details on a potential timeline for the proposed “de-establishment.”

Residents of Rukban, thousands of whom fled battles between Syrian pro-government forces and the Islamic State in eastern Syria’s Homs province in recent years, had scarce food and water supplies even before the road closure earlier this month.

Inside the “berm,” they live in makeshift tents and mud houses built by hand, while a lack of medical supplies mean diseases such as diarrhea and hepatitis are widespread.

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut. Follow Madeline on Twitter: @MEdwardsJO.