A child holds up an appeal for help during a protest by resident of the Rukban camp in southeast Syria in spring 2024

Displaced civilians, stranded in the Rukban camp in southeast Syria since 2015, say they are on the brink of starvation.

The camp, near the Jordanian border, once held around 75,000 people who fled Islamic State attacks in central Syria. The Assad regime and Russia laid siege to it in September 2018, cutting off the main road. Food, medicine, and essential supplies were scarce. The UN found in 2020 that almost all children under 5 in the camp were malnourished.

There are no doctors, and only a rudimentary medical clinic. Illness is widespread because of a lack of drinking water, poor sanitation, and inadequate shelter. Infants have perished and pregnant women have died from complications, unless emergency treatment could be arranged across the border in Jordan.

But about 10,000 residents continue to hold out, fearing intimidation, loss of property, detention, and even disappearance if they return to their home areas.

See also Rukban Camp’s Residents Face Renewed Threat of Starvation

The residents have relied on a few smugglers to transport food and basic goods into the camp. However, in the past month, the Assad regime has cracked down, stopping the entry of expensive supplies. The displaced are trying to survive on milk from livestock and the small amount of bread which remains.

One of them, “Hisham”, told Will Christou of The New Arab:

The road has been cut off for 28 days. No food or medical goods have entered the camp, and the shelves are completely empty. The situation is very bad.

A Lifeline Under Threat

Rukban is inside a 55-km (34-mile) security zone around the US base at Tanf in eastern Syria, on the Iraq border. However, for years American forces balked at providing any assistance, fearing that this would antagonize Russia and commit the US to indefinite support.

See also How the US Abandoned Rukban’s Displaced Syrians — and Failed on Aid and Assad

In June 2023, the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force launched Operation Syrian Oasis to get essential aid into Rukban. The US military allowed use of available space on flights for dozens of airlifts of food, medical equipment, and baby milk. A doctor finally reached the camp to see serious medical cases.

However, the assistance has been curbed this year because of rocket fire by Iran-linked militias on the American military. SETF Director Mouaz Mustafa says:

As attacks against US bases have been increasing, the space available on US flights has become more sporadic. Though we retain the ability to fly in food or doctors, we need to find a way to expedite it.

“People Cannot Bear More”

An EA source inside Rukban summarizes the tightening Assad regime siege since April 18, both on movement of supplies and of people:

Some people are forced to go to regime areas for [medical] treatment, which results in them paying amounts that are out of control. The cost of going to regime areas for one person
costs approximately $1,500 for the smuggler and to the checkpoints of the criminal regime, not to mention the cost of the hospital.

Conditions are worsening because of the lack of medical equipment, a severe shortage of medicine, and the lack of specialists to diagnose illnesses: the camp’s clinic is currently staffed by a woman “who did not complete the education to obtain a nurse’s certificate because of the war”. About 20 children are suffering from jaundice, with families having to rely on alternative treatments because of the shortage of vitamins and antpyretics.

Some families are unable to “secure even one meal a day”. Heavy rains have partially collapsed some shelters.

Hisham says, “People cannot bear more, the children are hungry, and all they have is dry bread.”

But he refuses to go back to territory controlled by the Assad regime: “I would die before I think of returning to regime areas. It’s better to die with dignity than for the regime to kill me in its prisons, where I will die a thousand deaths before they finish with me.”