With Winter Looming, Rukban Families Get New Shelter

Despite UN inaction, much needed winterization gear has finally arrived in Rukban — and more is on the way.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Due to the potential threat of censure and/or retaliation by the Assad regime and/or 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.

The shelters in Rukban camp have been subjected to years of rain, snow, and mud, with little respite.

Opportunities for repair after a particularly harsh season of weather are similarly limited: in the past, residents have taken to patching their tarps and tents with headscarves, blankets, grain sacks, and the few other objects available in Rukban’s uniquely barren expanse of desert.

And international institutions including the United Nations (UN) and International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) have been notably absent from their stated goal of servicing the camp, leaving residents with nearly no options to renew the means available to them.

Various groups stake claim to Rukban camp, each with a compositional basis derived largely from their region of origin or former militant affiliation. The Tribal Council of Palmyra is one of these groups seeking to assert a political representation of Rukbani residents.

Aid convoys have arrived in Rukban exactly three times in the past two years, and none of the convoys in that timeframe have carried any essential winterization gear, such as blankets, fuel, or tarpaulins. This means residents have been forced to shore up their dwellings with dirt, mud bricks, and other makeshift means of construction.

With a new winter rapidly approaching, new tarpaulins, used to construct makeshift tent shelters in conjunction with metal framing and other structural foundations, have increasingly emerged as one of the most pressing needs facing Rukbani residents.

In general, exposure to extreme cold without adequate shelter can cause death in just a few hours. This means death from exposure is exceedingly common in refugee camps across the world. In Syria, the issue was heavily publicized in Western media in early 2019 following a statement from the WHO which identified hypothermia as a major threat to children in IDP camps. Even the UNHCR, despite its total absence of winterization provisions to Rukban camp across the past three years, has raised the issue of hypothermia while calling for donations as part of its “Below Zero” fundraiser and apparent emergency response effort.

Yet with no UN aid slated for arrival over the next several months, and with Damascus exercising an increasingly strict influence over UN structures hubbed in the city, residents of Rukban have been forced to deal with matters themselves.

New tarps have arrived into Rukban camp for the first time in three years via an informal distribution network, Offbeat Research can report. The tarps were secured from a location in regime-held territory, where such goods are commonly resold on various markets.

The shipment, which arrived at an undisclosed point over the past week, consists of 30 four-meter by six-meter tarps — but with each family numbering between 5 and 10 members, at least 150 people now have new shelter thanks to the monumental effort.

The buyer had an opportunity to purchase United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) tarpaulins which were being resold on the market, but opted instead to purchase logo-less tarps of the same quality, so as to avoid upsetting any residents of the camp, who hold a generally negative outlook towards the UN and its affiliates as a result of their perceived cooperation with the Assad regime’s military detention structures.

At the time of writing, an additional shipment has been secured, potentially extending shelter to as many as 500 families in time for winter.

Through various pathways, certain essential goods still filter into Rukban, and are distributed to individuals in the camp. In the case of essential goods carried into Rukban camp via informal networks, triage is subjected in certain cases to the external factors of local politics and group affiliation, but in many cases aid is triaged based on need, with the neediest families — by whichever metric in the context of the aid being distributed — held first in consideration to receive essential items.

In the case of recent tarpaulin deliveries, aid has been apparently triaged based on need, and the next shipment intends to reach the few women living in the camp without families. In the three aid convoys sent to Rukban by the UN across the past three years, however, aid has been distributed based not on need, but rather on registration status and the provision of government documents, with undocumented individuals slated for aid provision last — a crucial detail which we will explore closely in the coming weeks.

UPDATE: An additional shipment of 30 tarpaulins has arrived in Rukban camp — and in a stark and potentially upsetting contrast, these new tarps are branded with the logo of the UNHCR and UNICEF.

The images, which were provided to Offbeat Research from a source in the camp, highlight a critical failure of the United Nations to carry out its stated mission in Syria.

Although the buyer had initially sought to purchase logo-less tarps, with limited funding available, the UNHCR tarpaulins on the market were a sturdier option for the price, according to sources.

The UN has for years been targeted by allegations of aid abuse in Syria, with most of these allegations underpinned by the charge that Assad regime officials in Damascus have co-opted and summarily exploited various elements of the UN humanitarian relief framework.

Following the closure earlier this year of a cross-border UNICEF medical clinic, ostensibly due to COVID concerns, UN operations have been hubbed exclusively out of Damascus, with some in the camp fearful that there may be an effort to repatriate them back to regime-held areas, and ultimately, into detention or military conscription.

The UN has carried out an extensive series of surveys in Rukban camp, intended to identify key needs among the camp residents in order to fuel future operational outcomes, including the delivery of humanitarian aid. But Mouaz Moustafa, Executive Director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) and a longtime figure involved in both humanitarian relief and aid lobbying for Rukban camp, says these UN surveys can’t be trusted.

Moustafa said this stems from a widespread sentiment among residents of the camp, who view UN officials as acting in collaboration with Damascus intelligence services. Instead, he pointed to surveys of camp residents run independently by the SETF in cooperation with certain partners on the ground.

“Working with [Rukban residents], one thing I felt important to ask was why they ran away, and what happened,” Moustafa said in a conversation with Offbeat Research. “When we ask, ‘why are you refugees?’, they respond, ‘we ran away from Assad and ISIS.’ When we ask, ‘what do you want to happen?’, they respond, ‘we want to go anywhere the Assad regime does not control — or provide us a semblance of education, medical attention, trade, commerce, or [infrastructure].'”

UN-OCHA officials have refused repeated requests for comment on whether any winterization gear will be arriving into Rukban camp via official structures in the coming months.

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