Amman- A 26 year-old man stands in front of his house, built out of mud, and watches what has become a regular sight: a crowded convoy of trucks preparing to depart from the Rukban refugee camp. The trucks are filled to the brim with furniture, odds-and-ends, and of course, people.
This time however, the departing convoy evokes a strange feeling in the man from Homs. It is the largest caravan to date.
“When you watch your friends going back home, it becomes hard to deal with.” He told Syria Direct. “You yearn for your home, for your family. But you’re not able to go back.”
In the last few weeks, hundreds of groups of Rukban residents have streamed out of the camp, heading home to the countryside of Homs. The last two groups to leave the camp have numbered in the thousands.
According to a camp administrator, almost 4000 people left Rukban in Wednesday’s convoy.
The size of the departing convoys is only growing as Syrian Government forces pressure the camp’s residents to leave and Russian-provided transportation makes the journey easier.
“The increasing number of residents leaving is a result of the ongoing blockade of the camp,” the camp administrator told Syria direct, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons. “The camp’s essential food supplies are almost exhausted.”
When the returnees reach government territory, they are placed in temporary housing centers. The centers are mostly old schools, converted to house displaced Syrians. The returnees will stay there until the disbandment of the Rukban camp is complete and a more lasting re-settlement solution is found.
The fate of returnees once they reach government-controlled territory remains unknown. Syria Direct has been unable to confirm the status of returnees once they reach these temporary housing centers.
Several Rukban residents told Syria Direct that as soon as their friends and relatives reached government areas, they stopped answering their cell-phones. Syria Direct was also told that families were being separated once they reached government territory.
America has accused Russia and the Syrian Government multiple times of hindering the return of Rukban camp residents to their homes within Syria.
Russia made accusations of its own in the pro-regime newspaper, Tishrin, accusing the United States of using the remaining residents of Rukban as “human shields to protect their illegal troops in Al-Tanf.”
No Good Choices
Rukban Camp has become a small city, a far cry from its haphazard origins. The displaced residents transformed what was a barren strip of desert on the Syrian-Jordanian border into a community of 40,000, replete with mud-houses and small shops.
However, as more and more convoys left for their former homes outside of Homs, the camp’s population has dropped dramatically. The remaining camp’s residents have few choices remaining—all of them difficult.
The perilous return journey to an unknown fate is still deemed by some residents to be worth the risk as supplies and food dwindle in Rukban.
The fact that many of the camp’s male residents would have fulfill their mandatory service requirement in the Syrian military upon returning to government territory gives many pause.
“If I leave, I have to serve in the Syrian forces. I can’t accept being drafted into the army and having to kill fellow Syrians,” said Qasem Abu Muhammed , a Rukban resident.
Even though he struggles to provide for his wife and two daughters, the prospect of military service keeps him from leaving Rukban.
“I have never served in the military, neither the regime nor the opposition forces,” he explained. “There is no way that after all these years of struggle in [Rukban] camp, I am going to join the army and participate in killing.”
Many of the young men in the camp never expected to have the option of returning government territory. They had hoped that some sort of agreement between the government would have been made to secure their passage to northern Syria, where Turkey’s influence remains strong.
Last September, an agreement was made between government forces and the opposition group Liwa Shuhada Al-Qureetayn to arrange for the transport of fighters and the residents of Rukban to the city of Jarabulus, which lies just to the north of Allepo.
However, this deal was never implemented.
“There should be no problem in transferring the residents of Rukban to the north,” Saed Saef, a spokesman for the opposition group Armed Forces of Ahmad Abdo, told Syria Direct . “But it’s not happening, they’re only moving people to the housing centers outside Homs.”
Emad Ghaly, an activist and journalist within the camp, told Syria Direct: “the whole camp is confused. Can we blame those who left given the current conditions of the camp? Do we condemn them or do we feel sympathy for them? They might die on the front lines if they are drafted into military service.”
Ghaly, who has refused to return to Homs, added: “It pains my heart to see what is happening. The same young men who participated in the popular movement on the first day of the revolution now have to return!”
Running out of supplies
Last February, the last UN and Syrian Red Crescent aid convoys entered the camp. Since then, supplies have been scarce and conditions have only gotten worse due to the harsh desert weather.
The aid convoys carried essential foodstuffs and medical supplies. The visiting aid workers also took the opportunity to conduct a survey assessing Rukban residents’ needs.
The camp was found to missing essential humanitarian supplies, medicine, and food. At least 12 children passed away in January due to lack of heating, baby formula, and sanitation concerns.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced in February that it would be opening “humanitarian passages” to facilitate the safe transfer of Rukban residents back to the government controlled areas in Homs.
In March, Russian and Syrian government officials met with Rukban community leaders within the camp. American diplomats were also invited to attend the meeting in order to help decide the fate of the Rukban camp.
After the meeting, residents began to leave Rukban in large groups. The caravans, numbering in the hundreds and thousands, were made up of families, as well as young men.
“Though the politics around returning to Homs remain the same, the lack of basic supplies within the camp due to the blockade has created greater numbers of returnees than expected,” a doctor and director of the Palmyra Medical Group in the Rukban camp told Syria Direct.
Some opposition groups within the Al-Tanf area are attempting to ease the blockade on Rukban by preventing any cars from entering the area if they are not carrying supplies for the camp’s residents.
“Families wouldn’t have returned in these numbers if not for the lack of basic supplies,” said Abu Al-Atheer, a military officer in the Revolutionary Commando Army. “This is a result of the regime’s economic blockade on the camp.”
“We do not let cars in if they’re empty. We only let them in if they are carrying flour, sugar, or fuel.”
He remarked that the number of cars without supplies heading towards Rukban has decreased since they have implemented this policy.
Still, the residents of the camp are suffering from the lack of basic supplies.
Shukree Shahab, a Rukban resident, told Syria Direct that his newly born granddaughter is sick, but cannot get the treatment she needs.
“Twenty days ago we were blessed with a granddaughter, but for the last two nights she has been crying non-stop,” Shukree said. “She’s suffering from swelling of the stomach. Even though her grandfather works in the local clinic, there’s nothing he can do. There’s no antibiotics.”
Khatam Shahab, the father, told Syria Sirect. “I looked all day for antibiotics in the camp. All I found was a packet of medicine that expired two months ago. I gave them to my daughter, because there’s nothing else I can do!”
Translated by: Will Christou.