AMMAN: A line of trucks, overladen with people, furniture and the detritus of years lived in displacement, trailed out into the desert.
Monday saw the latest convoy to leave Rukban camp, an isolated informal camp settlement of mud homes housing up to 40,000 displaced Syrians on the Syrian-Jordanian border.
In recent weeks, Rukban residents have trailed out in groups numbering in the hundreds.
However, they are now leaving by the thousands.
According to a camp administrator, Monday’s convoy out of Rukban is the largest to date as Russian and Syrian government forces push for bus evacuations into government territory.
“More than 3,000 people left [on Monday],” the official who heads one of the camp’s civil administrations told Syria Direct, speaking on condition of anonymity for security reasons, calling it the “largest convoy to have left Rukban camp.”
It included young men, as well as elderly camp residents and families.
A representative from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC), a Syrian government-affiliated aid agency present during the bus evacuations from the camp, could not confirm the numbers of returnees, but confirmed that SARC is present at Syrian government checkpoints outside Rukban.
‘We are seeing our neighbors leave’
Rukban is located within a desert border zone between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm.”
The camp was little more than an isolated patch of desert before the war. There were previously no hospitals, schools, towns, grocery stores or other basic services. A lone highway winds its way through the empty landscape, a route that once connected Damascus with Baghdad.
As the Islamic State (IS) advanced on areas of eastern Syria in 2014, thousands of Syrians fled southward in the hope of reaching the border and, afterwards, Jordan.
However, an IS-claimed car bombing killed several Jordanian soldiers at a nearby border outpost in 2016, prompting Amman to close the border and declare the surrounding area a military zone.
On the Syrian side of the border, a 55-kilometer zone manned by US soldiers and US-backed rebel fighters still prevents pro-government forces from reaching the border and retaking the entirety of the southern desert that surrounds Rukban.
The US has maintained that the al-Tanf military base inside the 55km zone is crucial in its fight against IS.
Trapped in Rukban, displaced residents slowly transformed the “berm” into a sprawl of mud homes and cinder block market stalls.
Vital supplies of food and medicine trickled in via desert smuggling routes from government territory, while diseases spread. Water often cut off, and freezing winter rains turned the camp’s alleyways to mud.
More than a dozen young children, including newborns, died this past winter due to weather conditions and a lack of medicine.
In recent months, the Syrian government and its Russian allies have piled pressure on the camp—talking increasingly in terms of dismantling it altogether.
In February, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that it would oversee “humanitarian corridors” to allow safe transfer of unknown numbers of Rukban residents to their hometowns.
According to the announcement, checkpoints would be set up on the outskirts of Rukban to “meet, receive, distribute and provide necessary assistance to internally displaced persons” who wish to leave the camp.
Syrian state media regularly shares updates about the convoys moving out of Rukban, seemingly in service of a narrative that the camp is slowly but surely dissipating.
“People are saying that the camp has begun to empty out,” camp resident Khodour al-Hussein, who runs an aid distribution point in Rukban, told Syria Direct. “And honestly, we are starting to see empty houses, empty shops. We are seeing our neighbors leave.”
“But that doesn’t mean that the camp is empty—at least not to the degree that the regime is saying it is,” he added.
In the weeks and months since the Russians announced the “humanitarian corridors” in February, thousands of Rukban residents have packed up and departed the besieged pocket of desert.
Unconfirmed reports of violence against returnees by Syrian security forces have accompanied the movements from the desert—but the stories do not appear to have deterred thousands from heading back.
Earlier this month, rumors circulated that two men who had returned to Syrian government territory from Rukban via a Russian-backed “humanitarian corridor” were shot dead by security personnel, after attempting to escape a government holding center in Homs province where returnees were being housed.
Two representatives from the SARC could not provide further information on the holding centers at the time.
A representative from UNOCHA, the UN’s humanitarian access agency that has been involved in past aid deliveries to Rukban, could not be reached for comment before publication.
One medical worker inside the camp told Syria Direct earlier this month that “this whole issue [of returns] is surrounded by mystery.”
‘There is a lot of pressure on us’
Communication with friends and relatives who have made the journey has already proven extremely difficult, with returnees entering the unknown once they cross back into government-held territory.
However, the camp administrator says that the small numbers of returnees who have now left government-run holding centers are beginning to contact their relatives back in Rukban.
“News has started reaching people in the camp from their family members who have been released from the [holding] centers,” he explained. “When people started hearing that they’d been released from the [holding] centers, that encouraged people [who are still in the camp].”
“They now want to leave, too.”
Camp residents who have stayed behind are now left with dwindling options—medical supplies are running low, and what food is available in Rukban’s dusty backstreet markets is becoming more expensive.
One Rukban resident who visited the camp’s market recently said he couldn’t find tomatoes. The price of bread has risen, he added, while flour is only getting harder to find.
“Rukban is being stretched extremely thin,” he told Syria Direct.
For the majority of Rukban residents who haven’t already left, the future is more uncertain than ever.
“There is a lot of pressure on us,” al-Hussein said. “Nobody has any idea of what the situation in the camp will be like a month from now.”
Additional reporting by Madeline Edwards.