Since fleeing war, more than 40,000 refugees languish in the desert between Jordan and Iraq. Moscow has now offered them a route of return, but while most men have chosen hunger over persecution, some are sending their wives and children back .
In the middle of a sweltering Syrian desert near the border with Jordan and Iraq, a ray of hope recently emerged among thousands of people painfully awaiting their fate for the fifth year running.
More than 40,000 civilians have been braving bitter cold, scorching sun and hunger in the Rukban camp since they escaped the civil war that started in 2011.
Now Russia has offered a way out to them but for many the so-called humanitarian corridor could mean a death trap. Still, many are helping their families make a run for it amid scarce food supplies and disease.
Marwan, a farmer from Tadmor who refused to share his last name for security reasons, was one of those people. Just last week, he sent his children out of the camp, but stayed back himself.
“The regime will surely arrest me, but my wife and children should be OK,” he says.
“We have to pay to get people out of the camp. I registered their names to have them leave via camp officials who gave them to the regime side. Some people got accepted, while others didn’t.”
Reports have surfaced that Russia has called for closing down the camp, saying the corridors provided would help them go back, but many occupants say they are being forced to leave against their will.
Many displaced men in the camp say the Syria authorities do not want to allow just children and women to pass through since they are primarily looking for men, whom they suspect of being involved in anti-Assad rebellion.
Marwan, who has been in limbo at the camp since 2016, is one of many who has endured harsh winters and scorching summers after he was forced to escape a raging battle between Assad and Daesh forces in the historic city of Tadmor in 2014.
“The battle drove us to the desert,” he says. “We thought we would get into Jordan that way, but four years later, here we are.”
“I thought it was going to be a standard drive outside, but the driver, who works with the regime, was charging people $150. A relative wired us the money to help us leave. We are the subjects of ransom here.”
“Russia has urged refugees to go back, but we would rather despair under the scorching sun than disappear in Assad’s regimes,” says Marwan.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights recently reported that dozens of families started to leave the camp, saying the food shortage has forced people to save their children, even at their own risk.
“A lot of residents were arrested and forcibly sent to military service after the battle with Daesh ended, so we didn’t dare go back.”
With little water and hardly any food, the area has been called the “camp of slow death”.
“Where in the 21st century can you find 40,000 people being held hostage as part of a political game?” says Marwan.
“You need to kill and starve people these days before either the United States (US) or Russia win.”
The United Nations (UN) says that a “dialogue” between several countries was “ongoing”.
“The dialogue between the Syrian government, Rukban communities, Russia, the US and Jordan continues,” says Hedinn Halldorson, UN spokesman in Damascus, while speaking with TRT World.
A survey carried out by the UN and Syrian Red Crescent found a unanimous desire to leave the camp, but most also feared for their lives.
“Any movement needs to be in line with minimum protection standards and international humanitarian law,” he says.
“The UN welcomes dialogue … to ensure that any movement is safe, voluntary, well-informed and dignified."
Marwan is one of many living day to day with no end in sight.
“My wife was pregnant when we arrived and she had to deliver in nerve-wracking conditions that almost killed her,” he says. “Thank God she survived, but she now suffers from malnutrition since food is so scarce.”
Marwa Awad, a spokeswoman for the UN World Food Program (WFP), says the situation was made worse by the remoteness of the camp, which is located 300 km from Damascus.
The last convoy delivered by the WFP in February is already running low.
“These people are desperate for food, medicine, shelter and other basic necessities.”
Basema, a 29-year-old mother of three, wonders how she can continue buying basic needs for her children.
“Milk, nappies and medicine have become super expensive these days,” she says. “How could I possibly continue to be able to afford them?”
“My eight-year-old has been ill for months. He can only drink soup and liquids and his meds are running out. There is no way for me to earn a living. We are all relying on relief and money sent by our relatives, otherwise we would not have survived by now.”
Thirteen children have died since the beginning of the year, according to Hedinn.
Even though meetings are being held, the process is essentially stalled, says Shukri Shehab, Rukban public and political affairs committee spokesman.
Camp residents survive by selling smuggled goods.
Jamal Hamandosh, a 31-year-old shop owner in Rukban, has been selling food and vegetables for the past two years.
“We used to smuggle food and medicine from the regime areas in small cars so as not to be noticed,” he says.
When Daesh controlled Raqqa, food-smuggling was easier from there. However, the regime now is our sole source.”
Jamal charges on top of what he is paid to the smugglers. The price of tomatoes, for instance, has increased five-fold and fuel four-fold, mainly because of demand. Most families live on bulgur wheat or rice.
Mamdouh, who fled with his family from Daesh grips, also refuses to leave the camp.
The 35-year-old technician from Tadmor says the fear of disappearing is far greater than the misery there.
“We had neighbours who left, only to disappear. We have heard nothing about them. There are spies in this camp, too.”
“Most are patient and desensitised,” he says. “We would rather live on onion and water every day in open land than go back and be locked up.”
“There is a health crisis in Rukban. There are no doctors or health facilities here. Pregnant women deliver their babies literally on the floor,” says Awad.