'Can't Leave': 10 Years on, Thousands Forgotten in Syria Desert Camp

A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
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'Can't Leave': 10 Years on, Thousands Forgotten in Syria Desert Camp

A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP
A handout picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force (SETF) shows a displaced Syrian child in the Rukban camp, in a no-man's land in southern Syria © - / Syrian Emergency Task Force/AFP

In a no-man's land on Syria's border with Iraq and Jordan, thousands are stranded in an isolated camp, unable to return home after fleeing the government and militants years ago.

When police defector Khaled arrived at Rukban, he had hoped to be back home within weeks -- but eight years on, he is still stuck in the remote desert camp, sealed off from the rest of the country.

Damascus rarely lets aid in and neighbouring countries have closed their borders to the area, which is protected from Syrian forces by a nearby US-led coalition base's de-confliction zone.

"We are trapped between three countries," said Khaled, 50, who only gave his first name due to security concerns.

"We can't leave for (other areas of) Syria because we are wanted by the regime, and we can't flee to Jordan or Iraq" because the borders are sealed, he added.

The camp was established in 2014, at the height of Syria's ongoing war, as desperate people fled ISIS and government bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan.

At its peak, it housed more than 100,000 people, but numbers have dwindled, especially after Jordan largely sealed its side of the border in 2016.
Many people have since returned to government-held areas to escape hunger, poverty and a lack of medical care. The United Nations has also facilitated voluntary returns with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The last UN humanitarian convoy reached the camp in 2019, and the body described conditions there as "desperate" at the time.
Residents say even those meagre supplies risk running dry as government checkpoints blocked smuggling routes to the camp about a month ago.

Mohammad Derbas al-Khalidi, who heads the camp's council, said most families survived on scarce remittances that are funnelled in and largely smuggled aid, while about 500 men working with the nearby US base receive salaries of around $400 a month.

Around 8,000 people remain at the camp, some of whom are shown protesting for outside help in this picture provided by the Syrian Emergency Task Force
The father of 14 said he was wanted by the government for helping army defectors flee early in the war.

Only a safe passageway to Syria's opposition-held northwest or its Kurdish-administered northeast could "save the people who remain in Rukban", Khalidi said.

"If I didn't fear for myself, my children... I wouldn't put up with this life of disease and hunger," he told AFP.

Despite dire conditions, a handful of people keep arriving -- but not by choice.

The council and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said several dozen Syrians released from Jordanian prisons have been deported to Rukban in recent years.

Most have been convicted of crimes from drug trafficking to illegally entering Jordan or other security infractions, according to council data, with 24 people sent to the camp so far this year.

Mohammed al-Khalidi, 38, a mechanic not related to the camp chief, said he was deported from Jordan after serving time on drug-related charges.

He expressed anger at being dumped at the camp, and said he feared arrest if he returned to his home in Homs province, now in an area under government control.

"My relatives are all in Jordan. Everyone who was in Syria has either been killed or left. And our homes in Homs have been razed," he said.

"Where can I go?" he said.

"Jordan has not and will not force any Syrian refugee to return to Syria," a Jordanian official said, requesting anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Rukban camp residents "are Syrians and the camp is located on Syrian territory. It is therefore necessary to help them return to their regions inside Syria," he added.

- 'Never getting out'
Medical care in Rukban is almost non-existent.

Camp chief Khalidi said the site had nurses but no doctors, and people seeking medical treatment must be smuggled into government-held areas, with a round-trip costing about $1,600.

Many camp residents making the journey have disappeared into jails, he added.

Mouaz Moustafa, who heads the Washington-based Syrian Emergency Task Force association, said "the number one thing that they need (in Rukban) even more than food is doctors".
He noted a total lack of staff trained even for caesarean section births.

Rukban "has the worst living conditions... I have ever seen in any refugee camp", said Moustafa, whose association has airlifted aid into the camp with help from the nearby US-led coalition base.

Mohammed, 22, who had a liver problem, said that thanks to donations, he was able to be smuggled to government-held territory for surgery, after living in Rukban for years with his family.

He later fled to neighbouring Lebanon to avoid military service and still lives there despite a grinding economic crisis and growing anti-Syrian sentiment.

"Any place on earth is better than Rukban," he said.

Using a pseudonym because he is in Lebanon illegally, Mohammed said he has not seen his mother and older brothers in two years because they are stuck in the camp.

"My family knows they're never getting out... They're not even thinking of fleeing," he said.

"The camp is like a prison."



UN: More than Half of Cropland in Hungry Gaza is Damaged

A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
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UN: More than Half of Cropland in Hungry Gaza is Damaged

A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
A crop duster plane flies over a field, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza border, Israel, February 19, 2024.REUTERS/Susana Vera/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights

More than half of Gaza's agricultural land, crucial for feeding the war-ravaged territory's hungry population, has been degraded by conflict, satellite images analysed by the United Nations show.

The data reveals a rise in the destruction of orchards, field crops and vegetables in the Palestinian enclave, where hunger is widespread after eight months of Israeli bombardment.

The World Health Organisation warned on Wednesday that many people in Gaza were facing "catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions".

Using satellite imagery taken between May 2017 and 2024, United Nations Satellite Centre (UNOSAT) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) found that 57% of Gaza's permanent crop fields and arable lands essential for food security had shown a significant decline in density and health, Reuters reported.

"In May 2024, crop health and density across the Gaza Strip showed a marked decline compared to the average of the previous seven seasons," UNOSAT said on Thursday.

"This deterioration is attributed to conflict-related activities, including razing, heavy vehicle movement, bombing, and shelling."

The decline, UNOSAT said, marked a 30% increase in damaged agricultural land since it published its last analysis in April.

Israel's ground and air campaign was triggered when Hamas stormed southern Israel on Oct. 7.

The offensive has killed more than 37,000 people in Gaza, according to health authorities in the Hamas-run enclave, and has caused mass destruction and cut off routes for aid.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday there were more than 8,000 children under five years old in Gaza who had been treated for acute malnutrition.

As well as damage to crop fields and orchards, greenhouses across the Gaza Strip had also sustained significant damage, UNOSAT said.

The Gaza Strip has an estimated 151 square kilometres of agricultural land, which makes up about 41% of the coastal enclave's territory, according to data from UNOSAT.