Abu Ahmed knows exactly how long it’s been since he and his family fled their home in Homs for Rukban, a displacement camp in Syria’s southeast. For four years and three months, his children have been out of school; one of Ahmed’s sons, who was in third grade when the family fled, should now be in seventh grade. His oldest daughter began attending college in Syria — a dream he had helped her work toward “all of her life” — but only completed her first year before they had to flee.
“Our lives were ruined…we had to stop my kids’ education and run away,” he said.
Ahmed, who asked to be identified by his nickname for fear of retribution from the government, is one of thousands of refugees who have ended up in the Rukban camp, fleeing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and ISIS violence. Access to humanitarian aid, a lifeline for the isolated camp, was first cut off by the Jordanian government in 2016. That shifted aid delivery into Rukban onto agencies under the United Nations’ umbrella, which are based in Damascus.
The trouble is Damascus, the Syrian capital, is under the Assad regime’s control, making it difficult for aid to reach the camp. International organizations have deployed fewer than five aid convoys there in the last two years, creating a food crisis and humanitarian disaster. The camp’s population has fallen, from death and people fleeing as the aid crisis unfolds. Residents have increasingly taken to social media imploring assistance under the dire conditions.
The U.S. has forces stationed at the nearby al Tanf garrison. But neither Damascus nor the U.S. are claiming responsibility for Rukban, trapping its residents in a geo-political deadlock.
They say they’re now faced with a seemingly impossible choice: the dire conditions inside the camp, or threats of regime violence and backlash outside of it.
— The Voice of Rukban (@VoiceofRukban) February 16, 2020
How Rukban became part of a geopolitical stalemate
For more than four years, Rukban, a camp near the Jordanian and Iraqi borders, has housed thousands of displaced Syrians in mud brick homes and makeshift tents, many constructed by the camp residents themselves. At its peak, the camp had some 60,000 people. Many have since left the camp out of desperation.
Both Rukban and the U.S. al-Tanf base are located in a 55 kilometer (roughly 35 mile) safe zone, established by both the U.S. and Moscow. Washington asserts the humanitarian crisis in Rukban is outside of its purview, and that distribution of aid there would divert the military mission from its core purpose of combating ISIS and Iranian influence in the region.
“The military is a little tired of having everybody else in the U.S. government constantly turning to it to do civilian things,” U.S. Special Envoy to Syria James Jeffrey said in September, while responding to questions about Rukban.
The question of who is responsible for Rukban has been tossed between the countries for years. The camp is often used in a rhetorical tit-for-tat between the U.S. and the Assad regime. Washington frames Rukban’s suffering as the Assad regime’s responsibility, and therefore the drastic conditions there as the regime’s embarrassment.
“In Rukban, the problem is that the regime has a specific responsibility for these people, and it isn’t living up to it,” Jeffrey added.
Robert Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute who served as the U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014, says Syrian civilians are Damascus’ responsibility, but the U.S. military presence there mandates Washington protects civilians, too.
“Once you take military possession of an area, you are responsible for it and ultimately you are responsible for the people in it, that’s just the nature of military operations,” Ford said. “As long as they physically control [the area], and they do, then they are responsible for its civilians.”
The Assad regime and its Russian allies have increasingly used the camp as an anti-U.S. propaganda tool, blaming the U.S. presence there for Rukban’s suffering. In 2017, the Russian Defense Minister accused the U.S. of using Rukban’s internally displaced persons as “human shields” to protect the opposition forces Moscow calls “terrorists.” Moscow has even gone as far as comparing the situation to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
“If the State Department and the military [delivers aid to Rukban] as a humanitarian operation I think that would be a huge victory over Iran, Russia, and ISIS in messaging. It would help civilians, and our own partner forces would be seen in an even more positive light,” adds Moustafa.
But Steven Heydemann, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy, said that tactic carries little substantive weight.
“If you think about the Syria debate like the U.S. presidential election, there isn’t a big audience out there with minds willing or able to be changed,” he said. “It’s understood to be … a point of view that is dismissed by governments critical of the Assad regime and advanced by governments that are supportive of the regime.”
Life in Rukban
For more than a year the Syrian government has largely blocked critical U.N. assistance to Rukban. Damascus has long-argued allowing delivery into Rukban would be a show of support for what it calls anti-regime “terrorists” living there.
“Whenever we get a little bit of rice, or a little bit of flour or grains it feels like a miracle for us,” Ahmed said. “But to cook those you need a little fire, or oil, or butter, and that’s not always here.”
According to the UNHCR, many families in Rukban are living on one meal per day.
Ahmed says he eats a meal once every two or three days.
“We’ve all heard so many times in our lives somebody ‘dying of hunger,’ it’s like a cliche. And you can never believe it, that someone could just die of hunger, we couldn’t understand it,” Ahmed said. “But now in Rukban we understand … what it means to die of hunger. Because people here die of hunger.”
Water and sanitation concerns are also increasingly endangering Rukban’s residents. Most of the camp’s supply comes from UNICEF shipments out of Jordan. But Sara Kayyali, a Syria Researcher at Human Rights Watch, says the water supply is not sufficiently treated, so residents often end up drinking contaminated water.
“There are no sanitation facilities, no proper sewage facilities. We’re not talking about a very well developed camp,” she said.The lack of infrastructure also leaves residents vulnerable to the harsh desert elements. They’re exposed to the intense summer heat, freezing winter temperatures, snow, and even recently, sandstorms.
A near-absence of medical care is compounding the crisis. With no on-site doctors and no immediate access to medicines, the only healthcare option available to most residents in the camp is the UNICEF-supported clinic in Jordan, about a four hour drive away. Residents need explicit permission from the Jordanian government in order to leave the camp for the clinic, but their requests are often denied. “Really only very urgent cases are allowed in [to the clinic], and only allowed in temporarily for a few hours until you are bussed back to Rukban,” Kayyali said. “It’s something that usually is very delayed, if not rejected.”
“Conditions have been made so difficult to the point where you have children who have died, skin diseases, and urinary infections that could have easily been prevented with the right medicine,” Kayyali said.
“People no longer know why their kids die,” said Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director of the Syria Emergency Task Force (SETF), which works directly with the Rukban camp. “That’s the lack of diagnosis that we’re seeing there.”
The lack of support for the camp also means a lack of record keeping of official mortality rates. But according to Ahmed, death in Rukban is an increasingly normal part of life.
“We used to have one cemetery, and now we have three,” he said. “We have no access to medical care here, none of that. So now you can tell when you look at someone, ‘this guy is going to die’, and you just [prepare to] take him to the cemetery, there’s nothing you can do.”
“We have babies here. We have women, and the elderly, and children and they’re all dying amongst us,” Ahmed said. “We are losing people day by day.”
“The little girls and boys here, it’s their right to an education, it’s their right to have a toy to play with,” Ahmed added. “They deserve to have bread in their belly. It’s their right not to be frozen cold, to have a blanket to give some warmth.”
Kayyali says both the regime and the United Nations promised safety to those who repatriated out of the camp voluntarily. A large portion of Rukban residents, including Ahmed, hail from the Homs province, which is now under regime control. But many of those who chose to leave faced arbitrary arrests once they made it back to regime territory.
“Anyone that chose to go back out of desperation was put in [government] holding centers in Homs, there were so many extrajudicial arrests,” Moustafa said.
Moustafa also said the regime has been intimidating residents with threats that choosing to stay in the camp puts them at risk of suspected terrorism. Those tactics, along with increased skepticism that international organizations will protect them, have worked to keep the remaining residents inside.
“There’s no other place to go other than the regime, and all the people here had run away from the regime,” Ahmed said. “Basically anyone that left is either in prison now or forcibly conscripted.”
But Kayyali says as the situation grows more desperate, families continue to leave, even at the risk of detention and the continued unrest in the country, at the hands of the Assad regime. Between that exodus out of the camp, and increased mortality rates under the harsh conditions, Moustafa says Rukban’s population has declined to barely 15 thousand.
The conditions at the camp make the U.S. an easy target for criticism.
“People are dying because of lack of medicine and exposure. And there are American forces right there who could help, and they’re not,” Ford said. “Is that really how we want the American military to operate? That callous about civilians and their safety, is that what we’re about? And if that is what we’re about, then why are we complaining about the Syrian government’s brutality?”
Despite the lack of material support from the U.S., Rukban’s residents say they are largely grateful for what the U.S. presence there means for protection from violence. This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing on the Syrian conflict on the civil war’s ninth anniversary. Moustafa spoke at a news conference afterwards, and highlighted the situation in Rukban.
“[People in Rukban] tell me everyday that because of God first and because of American service men and women second that are stationed there, they are alive today,” he said. “It is the American base and the Syrian partner forces that keep ISIS and Iran and Russia and Assad from coming and either detaining or forcefully conscripting these 15 thousand refugees in Rukban.”
For Kayyali, the humanitarian stalemate and the camp’s continued suffering is reflective of the Syrian struggle writ-large.
“This is like a microcosm of the geo-political proxy war we’ve seen across Syria,” she said. “You have Russia and the US fighting for influence and meanwhile people are dying, and anti-government groups [are] holding people hostage to their own false ambitions.”
It’s a crisis that Ahmed struggles to accept four years and three months since finding himself in Rukban.
“The world has deserted us. We are human beings, we are Syrians. I don’t understand why this is the life we are condemned to. I remember what it was like to have a house, to be inside our homes,” he said. “Is Rukban camp, and these conditions, is this now our home? Is this now our country? Is that possible?”