Displaced youth sift through rubbish at the Rukban camp in southeast Syria, November 2019 (Amad Ghaly)
The Rukban camp is in its seventh year, with about 13,000 displaced Syrians still defying a Russia-regime siege, shortages of food and essentials, and lack of medical care.
The residents fled Homs Province in autumn 2015 amid Islamic State attacks to reach the barren area on the Jordanian border. Russia and the Assad regime, which imposed the siege in September 2018, are maintaining the pressure on them to return. The tactics — and the closure of Jordan’s border in June 2016 — have shrunk the population from a high of about 75,000, but the remaining civilians are holding out despite malnutrition and the health threats, citing the harassment, loss of property, and possible detention that await them.
Writing for the Operations and Policy Center, William Christou details the current situation in Rukban.
Shortages of Food, Soaring Prices
The regime has blocked humanitarian assistance to the camp, with the last UN delivery in February 2019. Jordan also halted aid two years ago. No NGOs officially operate in the camp, and unofficial organizations do so at great risk.
The siege and the collapsing Syrian pound led to shortages, especially fresh fruit and vegetables.
The prices of basic goods in al-Rukban have been steadily rising since Jordan stopped allowing aid deliveries via its territory two years ago. Like the rest of Syria, the economic crisis and severe depreciation of the Syrian pound has contributed to a sharp increase in prices.
There are acute shortages of many goods in the camp, especially fresh fruit and vegetables. Residents said there are only three reliable smugglers who can evade the siege. There are further problems because of smugglers’ preference to be paid in US dollars, and the Maghawir al-Thawra force, which protects the camp, taking a cut of the supplies.
The outcome is that the average price of basic food and medicine items rose 530% between 2018 and December 2020. A dozen eggs rose in price 826%, Panadol painkiller increased 826%, and four liters of cooking oil soared 1,011%.
Most residents are malnourished, with some dying from starvation. Clinics report that almost all children under 5 are suffering from malnutrition.
Residents are pursuing small-scale subsistence farming, but yields are low with crops grown in small plots around tents and houses, dependence on seeds smuggled into the camp, and the arid soil of Rukban.
Rudimentary Health Care and Lack of Public Services
The Russian-regime cutoff all but ended health care in Rubkan. No doctors remained. Nurses with limited or no training ran basic clinics with few medicines. A UNICEF-run clinic on the Jordanian side of the border was closed in March 2020 amid Coronavirus.
A head nurse summarized, “There is no healthcare system. There is nothing here.”
Residents suffer from endemic diseases, compounded by malnutrition, poor water, the desert conditions, and the burning of trash and waste. They include leishmania, rashes, respiratory illnesses, stunted growth, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most with conditions requiring dialysis or insulin have been forced to return to regime-held territory.
Three clinics remain. One was established in July 2020 with anonymous funding. It has equipment for surgeries, x-rays, two intensive care beds, and one respiratory device. It staffed by seven nurses. But lack of ongoing funds means there is no medicine for treatment.
A second clinic, with two nurses and a manager, has surgical and anesthesia equipment and an ultrasound device. With the assistance of doctors advising over Zoom, the clinic performed a successful Caesarean section on a woman on November 30 — a significant achievement, given the risks to pregnant women in the camp.
The third clinic has only two nurses, and the only known equipment is blood pressure devices.
The only public service in Rukban is water supplied from a Jordanian military base. A UN spokesman denied contamination issues, but children are suffering mysterious rashes.
For heating and cooking, residents burn trash and blankets. There is no electrical grid or distribution systems. Residents use car batteries to provide light and charge phones and electronics. A minority can use solar panels or generators, if they can obtain and afford the fuel. Internet and cellular data is available, through routers linked to a Turkish satellite, but provision is expensive.