In the far reaches of the Syrian desert, the world has already ended – and thousands of ghosts are trapped in purgatory.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Due to the potential threat of censure and/or retaliation by both the Assad regime and by the United Nations and its partner agencies in Syria, all local sources and named figures in this article are referred to under pseudonym. Unless otherwise indicated, all photos and videos have been provided by sources within the camp, and may be subject to image blur. In order to preserve operational security, sensitive details regarding certain locations and operational processes in Rukban camp have been modified.
“That’s the point, with Rukban. It’s a black hole. Nothing gets out of it. No info, no nothing.”Simone Jeger, Independent Humanitarian Advisor
By the middle of 2014, the Assad regime had displaced 6.5 million Syrians inside the country alone.* 2.5 million more had registered as refugees in neighboring countries. A series of sweeping offensives and sieges in Homs suddenly threatened to displace hundreds of thousands more.
*These displacement statistics, circa March 14, 2014, come from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the principal organization responsible for the management of internally and externally displaced people around the world. As the conflict has progressed, the UNHCR has become increasingly dysfunctional in its documentation and management of the Syrian refugee crisis.
And they did. Families ran in droves to the Jordanian border, fleeing an onslaught of warplanes, artillery shells, and marauding regime coalition forces.
Today, the number of dead Syrians is nearly unfathomable and effectively uncountable: indeed, since 2014, even the United Nations (UN) has stopped trying. Those who have not succumbed to the horrors of war carry on, forced towards a life in the increasingly remote and inhospitable regions of the Syrian badiyat, or an existence marred by xenophobia and repression on the far shores of Europe.
These stories serve as a testament, not to the horrors of war, but the Assad regime’s almost unimaginable brutality. International law has always been irrelevant to the equation of Syria, and indeed, all our commonly agreed upon norms have been set adrift by a tide of war intended to wrest control of the country by burning it to the ground.
Children in Rukban camp hold hand-written signs, pleading with the world to remember them.
Faced with an overwhelming influx of Syrian refugees, Jordan’s already heavily subsidized economy abruptly reached a tipping point. For years, thousands of refugee children had been wandering the streets of Amman, peddling water bottles during school hours to support their families. Tens of thousands more were still trapped in Syria, making final decisions as to whether they should stay in Syria and face potential death or leave their homeland behind for Jordan’s uncertainty and the intensely inhospitable nature of the Jordanian mukhabarat, or intelligence services.
During this period, most fled southward and eastward towards the Rukban border crossing — a sparsely manned outpost less than 10km from the Iraqi-Jordanian border. Then, in July of 2014, citing security concerns over recent SVBIED (Suicide Vehicle-Borne Improvised Explosive Device) attacks on the border checkpoint by ISIS militants, Jordan formally closed the Rukban border crossing – leaving thousands stranded.
Rukbanis, buoyed by false promises of a safe return, prepare to be repatriated to regime-held territory.
The Islamic State did indeed maintain some presence in the far eastern expanse of what they had declared to be “Wilayat Homs,” using their foothold in the area to facilitate cross-border transfers of goods and forces from Iraq to Syria and vice versa. And by late 2015, a clearly US-funded force comprised of Southern Front rebels and operating with the name جيش مغاوير الثورة (transliterated as Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra, or the “Army of Revolutionary Commandos”) emerged in the area as an opposing element to regional ISIS militants. It would take two more years for a physical US Armed Forces garrison (near Jabal at-Tanaf, roughly 10km to the northeast) to establish its presence in the region, officially operating as part of Operation Inherent Resolve, the Obama administration’s war on ISIS.
Since Jordan shuttered the border, Rukban has swelled in size, eventually reaching a peak of around 75,000-100,000 residents* from roughly 2017 to 2018. But due to death, forcible displacement, and sporadic repatriation efforts spearheaded by the Assad regime’s mukhabarat, the camp population has dwindled slowly in the years since. Recent estimations from mainstream sources have placed the population of Rukban camp at around 10,000 people, but this appears to be an underestimation: at current, internal sources say, there are likely upwards of 20,000 people living in the camp, with around 3,500 families comprising between 5 and 10 members each.
*Estimates as to various figures from within Rukban camp, including its population at any given point, will often vary widely. This is due to the camp’s physical inaccessibility and an absence of international focus on the area.
Between two berms
Rukban camp exists in a uniquely purgatorial environment.
In the north, the threat of the Assad regime looms heavy over Rukban’s residents. The regime is logistically overstretched and prefers to invest money in various “reconstruction” projects appealing to foreign interest, so this territory sees few actual patrols by regime forces. Moreover, the US and US-backed forces’ physical presence at the Tanf base, less than 10km away from Rukban camp, serves as a further deterrent for regime patrols. The United States and Jaysh Mughaweir at-Thawra have positioned themselves as the de facto operating party within the 55km deconfliction zone established during the base’s inauguration in early 2016.
While infrastructural support in the camp has been sporadic, the US Armed Forces garrison at Tanf base has been a crucial facilitating element in recent efforts to establish essential services in Rukban, including emergency provision cesarean sections to pregnant women in the camp. And as Will Christou reported for Syria Direct, the goodwill of the US government is also still needed to move forward on critical projects, including efforts by the Chicago-based humanitarian NGO MedGlobal to staff a newly built health clinic that currently sits empty and unusable, without any doctors.
In the center exists an effectively ungoverned territory, often referred to as a “no man’s land.” This area comprises the neigborhood for the bulk of Rukban’s inhabitants. Roughly as many Rukbanis live near the northern berm as the southern berm, and as the conflict has progressed, the UN and Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) have utilized various pathways to distribute goods into Rukban camp. However, most goods today come from the north, either via piecemeal UN / SARC structures hubbed out of Damascus or via informal networks.
To the south lies Jordan, A barren desert country with sparse natural resources and an economy heavily reliant on foreign aid. Initial surges of displacement sent a shockwave through the Jordanian economy and drove millions of Syrian refugees into Amman’s streets and the tents of Zaatari. This logic led to the country’s ostensibly pragmatic and apparently malicious decision in 2014 to shutter the southern berm, leaving Rukbanis trapped between two impossible circumstances: an impassable border and a labyrinth of dungeons leading only to torture and death.
Over the next several weeks, Offbeat Research will release a series of articles and investigative reports on the conditions of Rukban camp — from the informal networks which fuel the camp’s fledgling and often tumultous existence to the daily lives of its residents and their struggles to thrive amid overwhelming and seemingly apocalyptic oppression.
The title of this series refers to the regime coalition’s longstanding treatment of Rukban camp as an abstract element of propaganda, and Russia’s call in early 2019 for the international community to support “liquidating” Rukban camp —only to replace their demand less than 24 hours later with a plea for the “[suffering] Syrian citizens” trapped in the camp. For too long, Rukbanis have been a forgotten holdover of a forgotten conflict, left adrift by the lacking will of the world.
We intend to cast light on a long-forgotten element of Syria, all but abandoned by both the UN and the wider international community, and to detail the fundamental and systemic failures of the international humanitarian community in providing essential support and services to the thousands of human souls whose daily lives serve as testament to the unending brutality of war.
As part of this series, Offbeat will work to facilitate financial donations to Kids Paradise and other registered INGOs for the provision of essential goods and services to refugees in Rukban camp and other affected areas in the region.