Sandwiched between Syria and Jordan, eight children died at the refugee camp in the last month alone, as a result of both the Assad regime and Jordanian government sealing the border, blocking medical and food supplies.
In the arid landscape of southern Syria, lies the camp of Rukban. Starving, freezing, suffering from a lack of medical care, children have been dying here since 2016.
A week ago, Abdallah Arandas rushed his four-month-old daughter Yamal to the nurses in the camp for urgent medical care. She suffered from jaundice and needed specialised treatment. There are no doctors and no clinics, the nurses, who lacked medicine and equipment, could not help.
He then tried to cross into Jordan - on the other side of the sand berm demarcating the border with Syria - but to no avail. Jordan allows severe health cases to be treated in the health centre near the border however only a few people succeed in accessing the services.
On the other side of the camp are Syrian soldiers. Taking her to the government-held areas would have meant bribing the smugglers. Abdallah does not have any work because there is none and had no money to pay the smugglers.
Yamal died in his arms without receiving any treatment.
“We were displaced from home because of war and now we are in another war with death,” Arandas said.
He was forced to flee Al Qaryatayn in Homs three years ago. Since then, he has been languishing in Rukban camp in a territory trapped between Jordan and Syrian government forces, neither of whom facilitate the passing of aid.
His daughter was one of the eight children who died at the camp in the last month alone due to a lack of healthcare.
Ahmad al Khatib’s baby died unborn. Her mother needed a caesarian section, but she too failed to enter Jordan.
Two-month-old Khadija died of sudden fever and inflammation. Her father, Abdul Karim, did not have any money to buy her medicine.
Rukban has become a graveyard of children.
The situation worsened when Jordan shut its gates in 2016. It stopped aid deliveries after an attack was launched from Rukban, allegedly by Daesh. The terrorist group has been largely vanquished from Syria but it is suspected to still have some sleeper cells in the camp.
The Syrian government has cordoned off a 55-km radius around the camp and allowed all of two aid convoys to go through in the last year. Bashar al Assad’s regime makes it difficult for life-saving aid to get to besieged areas under what seems to be a deliberate strategy. The lack of necessary basics is aimed at coercing the residents to accept his rule and return to regime-held Syria.
“Even food is scarce,” Abdallah said. “We get warmth from a little bit of wood but mainly by burning plastic from here and there.”
People rely on smuggled goods from regime-controlled Syria, which they are often unable to buy because of the exorbitant prices the smugglers charge. The inhabitants in the camp are caged with nowhere to go, no one to seek help from.
The United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF, called the crisis in Rukban ‘manmade’ and said that 80 percent of the camp’s 45,000 residents are women and children, the most vulnerable people in society.
“Extreme cold and the lack of medical care for mothers before and during birth, and for new infants, have exacerbated already dire conditions for children and their families,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF's regional director for the Middle East.
“Needs for assistance in Rukban are beyond urgent. They are extremely acute and have become a matter of life and death,” he said.
Rukban’s humanitarian crisis is hardly ever heard of, even though it lies barely 20 kms from the main American base in Syria at Al Tanf.
American troops provide the nurses with basic medical training, nothing else. They are there, said Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected and now lives in the US, only for strategic reasons.
The US has been supplementing the war against Daesh by providing air support to their local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and are still engaged in eliminating the remaining pockets of the terrorist group.
The additional motive for the US to deploy soldiers in Tanf is to contain Iran by obstructing the landbridge Iran aspires to build, connecting Tehran through Iraq into Syria and finally leading to the Mediterranean in Lebanon.
“Iran has the interest to take over this crossing to shorten the distance between Tehran to Damascus,” Barabandi said.
Tanf is near the Iraqi border and Rukban a few miles from Tanf.
Iran wishes to have its region of influence not only to take on the hegemony of Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world but also to threaten Israel, both of which are US allies.
In the long list of geopolitical calculations, the children of Rukban don’t seem to be a priority for either stakeholder.
On top of all that, the aid agencies, at times, have failed to go inside the camp to deliver aid because they could not procure promises of safety from all the armed entities. Even the Americans refused to escort them, for they too see the camp filled with hostile elements. Rukban is riddled with myriad rebel groups, jihadists and Kalashnikov-bearing members of different clans.
Abu al Athir, head of the security bureau of the Maghawir al Thawra rebel group, which is backed by the Pentagon, said that they are always ready to cooperate and are in fact waiting for the UN to send aid.
“UN promised to come back when they delivered aid last time,” he said. “But since then we haven't seen them or their aid.”
Arun Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, casts the blame on all parties. The Assad regime, Jordan, the US, Russia and several rebel groups inside the camp, he said, also share responsibility for the calamitous state of affairs.
“The fact that all sides share some of the blame and have acted like total creeps toward these civilians also discourages broad coverage, since none of them wants to draw attention to their own instrumentalisation of civilian suffering,” he said.