Rare humanitarian convoy set to reach Rukban next week, says UN, amid ‘hardest winter yet’ for desert camp

A SARC handout photo shows Rukban residents receiving aid on November 5, 2018. Stringer/AFP/SANA.

AMMAN: Bitterly cold rain turns the dusty street to mud as men run for shelter in one of the dozens of earthen homes lining one corner of Rubkan camp.  

Since a rare UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy reached the remote desert settlement in early November, this winter has been one of the hardest yet, camp residents say, as they languish in a barren desert region of Syria with few supplies.

Now, a second humanitarian mission is slated to enter the camp, as residents say they are in desperate need of basic cold weather supplies to get through the rest of the winter.

At least 100 UN and SARC aid trucks are planned to set out from Damascus on February 5 towards the isolated, beleaguered Rukban displacement camp along eastern Syria’s border with Jordan, the UN announced on Wednesday.

The planned delivery, the first since November, comes after several years of once-annual aid convoys that brought only brief respite.

Due to a complex geopolitical standoff over control of this isolated corner of eastern Syria, as well as responsibilities shirked by nearly all sides involved, aid deliveries to Rukban usually only go ahead once a year. The camp’s residents regularly go months without even basic medical and food supplies.

November’s humanitarian convoy was postponed more than once due to “security concerns,” a UN spokesperson in Damascus told Syria Direct at the time.

Supplies set to arrive in Rukban as part of next week’s planned delivery will include “winterization support,” Mark Lowcock, chief of the UN’s humanitarian access agency, said in an official briefing to the UN Security Council on Wednesday.

Lowcock did not elaborate further on what those winter supplies would include.

According to displaced residents of Rukban, cold weather supplies like blankets and gas are desperately needed following weeks of violent dust storms and heavy rains.

More than 40,000 displaced Syrians live in makeshift tents and mud homes in Rukban, with little protection from the bitter cold within the open desert. There, Syrians who fled their hometowns—mostly in parts of rural Homs province seized by the Islamic State (IS) after 2013—live in abject poverty.

“It’s just dust and intense cold here,” Saeed al-Ali, who lives in the camp with his wife and two children, told Syria Direct last week.

But basic supplies, including food and gas for running soba heaters, are not readily available. Some vital items are smuggled in from surrounding government-held territory, albeit at steep prices that many families within Rukban struggle to afford. In the past, Rukban residents have resorted to burning plastic and debris for warmth during the harsh desert winters.

“Thank God, I have firewood that I use to keep my soba lit,” camp resident Omar al-Homsi told Syria Direct. “But I’ve been to many people’s houses here in the camp, and most of them don’t even have heaters.”

“I don’t know how they’re getting through this. More than three years in this camp, and this is my hardest winter yet,” al-Homsi added.

Weather conditions in the camp have hit children especially hard. At least eight young children—including one newborn baby—have died in the past month alone due to this year’s harsh winter temperatures, according to a UNICEF statement released earlier this month.

There are no licensed doctors in Rukban, according to residents and medical staff, and a network of informal clinics run by nurses provides only limited treatment. A UN-run medical clinic across the border in nearby Jordanian territory treats those who are able to sign up and cross.

Rukban’s location, within a no-man’s-land along the Syrian-Jordanian border known as the “berm,” means that the tens of thousands of displaced people there are all but trapped. Crossing into Jordan is only an option for those in need of specialized medical care at the UN border clinic.

The desert immediately surrounding the camp is part of a 55-kilometer “deconfliction zone” set up by US forces. That area is nominally controlled by a US-backed rebel group operating out of the al-Tanf military base, which both the US and rebel fighters claim is part of a now-waning fight against IS.

Displaced Syrians living in Rukban who wish to go back to their hometowns face a difficult decision. For most, their homes are in territory now back under Syrian government control, where they fear they could face arrest or mandatory military conscription, as is required of Syrian men in areas of the country under Damascus’ authority.

Going home means crossing threw a slew of government checkpoints along the way, and traveling—oftentimes with the help of people smugglers—through an open desert where pro-government militias maintain a presence.

But to stay in Rukban means to face a bitter winter with precious few supplies.

“We’re in the middle of winter here, and we’re cold,” father of two al-Ali told Syria Direct from his temporary home in the camp. “We hear about aid distribution campaigns for all of the Syrian camps—except for this one.”

“We’ve been abandoned to face the cold alone.”

For the time being, al-Ali is still able to afford food and other smuggled-in supplies for his family because his brother, who lives abroad, wires him the money.

But not everyone is as fortunate, he said.

“There are people here who aren’t able to eat anything.”

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.