Children among more than 40,000 displaced persons in the Rukban camp, southeast Syria (UNHCR)
Thousands more displaced Syrians have left the besieged Rukban camp in the southeast, amid shortages of food and medicine that have caused scores of deaths since last autumn.
Local sources told EA that about 3000 to 4000 residents left on Sunday because of the “dire situation” with the lack of food. Most were women, children and elderly.
All of those leaving have to pay to be taken to the first Russian-manned checkpoint outside Rukban, from where they are being transported to an Assad regime center in Homs in central Syria.
Rukban has about 40,000 displaced, who left their homes in 2015 amid Islamic State attacks. They have been trapped in the barren area since Jordan closed the border in June 2016 because of an ISIS suicide bombing that killed several personnel.
The Assad regime cut routes into the camp last autumn and has only allowed two aid deliveries since January 2018. There are only basic clinics in the camp, and only the most serious medical cases are allowed to cross into Jordan.
While more than 90% of residents said in a February survey that they wished to leave, all told UN staff that they feared detentions, forced conscription, and uncertainty over the status of their property.
Those fears appear to have borne out, at least in the case of men in the regime “shelters”. While communication is limited — phones are now prohibited — sources told EA that three men were killed in the Bab Amr center two weeks ago, when they tried to protect a woman being assaulted by regime personnel. Three others were taken by military intelligence from the al-Bayadah center last week.
Russia has sought the liquidation of the camp for months. In February, it announced “humanitarian corridors” — military checkpoints — for residents to depart, but none showed up. Moscow stepped up propaganda blaming “militants” and the US military, which have a nearby base at Tanf on the Iraq border.
Russian and regime officials then held talks including UN staff and Rukban representatives. They refused requests for transfer to the opposition-held north and for any lifting of the siege.
The pressure has now led to the departure of between 7,000 and 8,000 residents.
The departed are only transferred after checks by regime security services, which take between 10 to 20 days. Men are told they must undergo “reconciliation”, supposedly receiving a six-month waiver from service in the regime’s military.
But the Syrian Association for Citizens’ Dignity says Russian and regime personnel are interrogating the displaced at the centers, with returnees told to phone relatives and friends in the camp, “Things are fine, treatment is good, and you should all come back.” Regime security forces and shabiha (pro-Assad gangs) reportedly carry out occasionally raids, looking for targeted men.