Regime news agency SANA’s photo of residents leaving Rukban camp amid “dire food situation”, April 2019

The Assad regime is demanding payment to release displaced Syrians who have left the besieged Rukban camp, while threatening those who remain with starvation.

This week the regime, supported by Russia, again blocked aid to the estimated 36,000 people who remain in the camp, in the barren area of southeast Syria near the Jordanian border.

The regime cut routes last autumn to the camp, where the displaced fled from 2015 amid Islamic State attacks on their homes. Scores have died from lack of food and adequate medical care, and the UN warns that thousands of children are at risk.

The regime has denied all but two aid convoys since January 2018, issuing another refusal this week. The shortages have been compounded by Jordan’s cutoff of the border, following an Islamic State suicide bombing in June 2016.

After months of Russian as well as regime pressure and propaganda, more than 7,000 residents have finally given way in the “dire situation”. Since late March, they have paid $15 for transport to Russian-manned checkpoints. From there, they have been taken to four regime centers in Homs Province.

See also Syria Daily, April 16: The Threat to the Displaced Inside and Outside Rukban Camp

Charging for “Freedom”

The UN was blocked for weeks from access to the centers, amid reports of the disappearances of men for interrogation and the killing of at least five — three of whom tried to protect a woman who was being assaulted by regime personnel.

Syria Reports: 3 Men Executed by Regime After Leaving Rukban Camp

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued a statement on Wednesday that UN officials had finally been allowed into the centers. It said that 4,303 people had left Rukban up to April 21 — 52% of them children and 28% women.

The OCHA said of this first group, only 603 remained in the regime facilities — including men who had to “settle their status with the authorities”.

But the organization did not mention conditions for the departures. A local source summarized for EA:

People only get released from the schools when they have a sponsor” who pays a fee. In one case, a sister had to pay 150 Euros (about $168) for a young mother and baby, but the amount seems to be random. Young men can also be “bought out” like this.

It was a sad sight seeing the people there under tight guard.

The source said it is unclear if those leaving Rukban know of the fee for their release until they arrive at the centers.

The World Health Organization also mentioned the displaced in the Homs centers, but focused on vaccination programs.

The WHO also did not mention the conditions for the displaced and their release. Nor did its language “recently returned” mention that people had only been transported under duress.

In a February UN survey, more than 90% said they wanted to leave Rukban but all said they feared detentions, forced conscription, and uncertainty of their status and that of their property if they came back to regime areas.

Threatening Starvation

Russian officials have promised the “liquidation” of the camp, and the Assad regime maintained the siege this week by refusing the UN aid convoy.

A source inside Rukban communicated with EA:

The food situation is getting more and more dire and this is the main reason why people leave. There is no food left to buy, so even with money, one cannot help anymore, smuggling in food is totally blocked.

The camp’s only bakery stopped production this month. If a bag of flour can be found, it costs 40,000 Syrian pounds ($70) — eight times the price in regime territory.

Residents said many people are surviving on just one meal a day, often bread and olive oil or yogurt.

Despite the recent departures, those still in Rukban remain because of fear. Mahmoud al-Fatoh, a 45-year-old teacher, said:

I do not want to go back to regime areas because Syrian intelligence will force me and my young sons into military services or they’ll arrest us.

He compared Rukban to life in Sednaya Prison, where many thousands of Syrians have died from execution, torture, and poor conditions: “We might leave here some day in the future, [and] if we are arrested and imprisoned, only God knows if we stay alive. Probably not.”

Kholoud Saqik, a 31-year-old mother of two, spoke of the reports of the arrest or killing of those who had left Rukban:

Most of my neighbours and I cannot risk leaving while these stories are spreading like fire here.

Me and my family will stay until the end. We are not happy with this life, but we have no good alternative. Going back to the regime side is suicide, we cannot take it.

Other residents are at breaking point. Amour, 46, said by phone, “Today you eat. Tomorrow there is nothing to eat.”

He explained that his 3-year-old son is frail from being fed sugared water instead of powdered milk. To make flour supplies go further, gravel and dirt are added to dough.

“No one is leaving out of their own will. I can no longer sleep with my children hungry,” he said.

Ibrahim al-Nasser, who ran a grocery it closed for lack of goods, has given up. He said as he departed Rukban: “People are gripped with fear of being arrested. But I am forced to leave even if I might face death or prison so that my children live.”

US Concern, But No Action

On Thursday, the US State Department said in a statement that it is “appalled” by the Assad regime’s refusal to allow aid into the camp.

We remain deeply concerned about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Rukban, especially as the Holy Month of Ramadan is about to begin.

We urge the Assad regime and Russia to permit deliveries of international humanitarian assistance from Damascus and stop blocking commercial routes to the encampment immediately in order to avert further suffering.

However, the Department pointed to no action to challenge the siege.

Rukban is within a 55-km (34-mile) security zone around the US base at Tanf on the Iraq border, but American forces have refrained from any attempt to assist residents, apparently fearing a confrontation with the Russians.

Thursday’s statement repeated the US line that “any process to facilitate departures from Rukban should ensure that movements are safe, voluntary, dignified, and coordinated with UN agencies”. It did not mention the situation in the Homs centers.