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‘To the regime, or to the north?’ Rukban residents grapple with hopes of leaving desert camp behind

Qassem has a lot on his mind lately.The father of two is among some 40,000 displaced Syrians residing in the remote Rukban displacement camp along Syria’s border with Jordan.

18 February 2019

AMMAN: Qassem has a lot on his mind lately.

The father of two is among some 40,000 displaced Syrians residing in the remote Rukban displacement camp along Syria’s border with Jordan. There, he lives within a sprawl of makeshift mud homes and tents that provide little warmth from this year’s bitterly cold winter. He’s been there with his wife and children for three years.

A brief respite came last week with the arrival of a joint UN-Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) aid convoy. Over 100 trucks carrying winter coats, food, vaccination kits and other supplies streamed across the eastern Syrian desert and entered the camp as part of a rare official aid delivery.

But the convoy—the second in months, following a previous delivery in November—remains little more than a temporary fix, camp residents and aid workers say.

When Qassem carried his two young daughters to the nearest impromptu mud schoolhouse last week, an aid worker from the UN-SARC convoy provided vaccines for the two girls, injecting the medicine into their arms and legs.

Then, they asked the 29-year-old father a question.  

“Are you hoping to return to regime [territory] or go to the [rebel-held] north?” Qassem recalls them asking.  

Other Rukban residents say they’ve been asked similar questions by visiting aid workers, part of a pre-planned intentions survey to “consult with displaced people on their wishes and priorities to inform discussions on facilitating durable solutions,” according to a February 6 statement from the UN.

Even so, Rukban residents as yet unwilling to return to their homes in newly government-held territory describe the surveys as the latest sign that the camp’s future in this disputed pocket of desert may not be a permanent one.

On Friday, 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 on the outskirts of Rukban are set to open on Tuesday morning to “meet, receive, distribute and provide necessary assistance to internally displaced persons” who wish to leave the camp.

‘No coordination’ on reported Russian plans

Several Rukban residents and camp officials told Syria Direct they’ve seen no movement on the ground to indicate that a Russian-backed plan for safe passage is set to go ahead.

“It’s impossible,” says Ahmad a-Zgheira, a member of Rukban’s local camp-run administration. “Even if the news is true, there hasn’t been any coordination with the camp or any official notification. It’s impossible that it will happen on Tuesday.”

A UN official in Syria could not confirm whether the Russian-led plan was going to take effect, stressing that any returns from Rukban be “voluntary and well informed.”

A source with knowledge of the matter meanwhile told Syria Direct on Sunday that the proposed “humanitarian corridors” are not part of ongoing trilateral talks between Russia, the US and Jordan to dismantle Rukban.

The three countries are reportedly engaging in Amman-based talks over the fate of Rukban and its tens of thousands of displaced residents. However, any timeline or exact details about the proposal remain unclear, an official Jordanian source told Syria Direct last week.

However, residents say few of the fundamentals that define life in Rukban have changed. Living conditions in Rukban are deteriorating—rapidly—and medicine as well as basic food supplies and hygiene products are running low. There are no doctors in the camp.

Rukban sits within a barren no-man’s-land between the Syrian and Jordanian borders known as the “berm.”  The roughly 55-kilometer corner of desert surrounding the berm is nominally controlled by rebel forces backed by the US-led anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition, which operates from the a-Tanf military base just a few kilometers east of the camp.

Outside this 55km zone lie vast swathes of territory held by the Syrian government. There, pro-government forces—as well as allied Iranian and other militias—maintain a continued presence.

A surprise announcement by US President Donald Trump late last year that his country’s forces would pull out of Syria—including potentially from a-Tanf—raised fears among Rukban residents that pro-government forces could soon encroach on the camp.

But a return home from Rukban means going back to live under the Syrian government—something many in the camp say they are still unwilling to do.

Rukban was never intended as a permanent settlement. Thousands of Syrians fled into the open desert in this corner of Syria from their hometowns, mostly in Homs province, during advances by IS after 2013. The nearby Syrian-Jordanian border promised hope of someday crossing to safety, but an IS-claimed car bomb attack in 2016 prompted Amman to shut the border tightly, declaring the surrounding area a closed military zone.

Years passed, and Rukban’s makeshift tents became informal mud homes. Residents built a small market and schoolhouses. The camp’s location in a disputed corner of Syria’s desert meant the tens of thousands of displaced people there were all but trapped.

‘I want to return, but on the condition nobody threatens us’

Rukban residents are increasingly weighing their options for leaving the camp altogether.

It’s something Qassem has been thinking about lately, especially following a difficult winter that has Rukban residents questioning how much longer they can withstand life in the desert. And a looming US withdrawal from the nearby a-Tanf military base, previously seen as holding nearby pro-government forces at bay, has residents worried about what’s to come.

“I want to return to my home, but on the condition that nobody from the regime threatens us or bothers us,” Qassem remembers telling the aid worker in the schoolhouse.

Though still largely hypothetical, the choice of where to go from Rukban is a difficult one. To return home is, for most Rukban residents, to live under renewed Syrian government territory. There, they fear they could face detention, for perceived pro-opposition sympathies, or mandatory military conscription—a requirement for all Syrian men in government-held areas of the country.

Nevertheless, small numbers of displaced Syrians in Rukban have already made the journey home. In January, around 200 residents joined an uncoordinated convoy of open-back trucks and headed back to their original homes in Maheen, a small town in Homs province.

Even so, many camp residents appear unwilling to take the risk of returning home. Displaced Syrians residing in Rukban have long called for safe passage to opposition-held northwestern Syria, where thousands of people already live in displacement camps after a series of forcible evacuations saw the government seize control of former rebel-held enclaves across the country.

In September, there was talk of a planned evacuation convoy from Rukban some 400 kilometers north to Jarablus, a city along Syria’s northwestern border that is currently under Turkish military occupation.

The evacuation convoy, which was set to include fighters from a defunct rebel faction present in Rukban as well as several thousand camp residents who signed up to leave, would have been the first of its kind from the remote settlement.

And though the planned evacuation never went through, Rukban residents are still calling for safe passage to Syria’s north.

Others, including Rukban father-of-two Qassem, say they are prepared to simply remain in the camp rather than face the risks of what is, for now, the most realistic option for those hoping to leave: going home.

“I can’t go back to my town,” Qassem tells Syria Direct. “I’m wanted for the army reserves, I’ve been wanted since the beginning of the revolution.”

The alternative, he says, is life in the desert, and uncertainty.

“Rukban doesn’t have anything. It’s just desert. Rukban has nothing but God.”

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