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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 17 December 2018

Aid must reach the starving in Rukban

It is not too much to ask that food and supplies find their way safely to this desolate refugee camp

Conditions in the Rukban camp, between Jordan and Syria, are worsening day by day. AP 
Conditions in the Rukban camp, between Jordan and Syria, are worsening day by day. AP 

Douma, Aleppo, Idlib − to the catalogue of place names that will be forever stained by the Syrian war must now be added another. So far, Rukban has claimed few headlines around the world. But the fate of this informal desert refugee camp, in a no-man’s land near the Jordanian border, and that of the 50,000 desperate individuals trapped there, is a microcosm of the greater Syrian tragedy. Situated on the borders of Syria, Jordan and Iraq, the camp is a product of the all-but-forgotten fighting in the east of the country. It has grown up over the past three years, as tens of thousands of people have fled ISIS and the Russian- and US-led air strikes against the terror group in central and eastern Syria.

These attacks continue unabated. On Friday, Unicef highlighted reports that another 30 children had been killed in Al Shafa, a village in the east. Unicef and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have been trying to reach the isolated camp since early this year, but have been continuously thwarted by the lack of security in the region. Between November 3 and 8 they finally managed to get through with a convoy of 78 trucks. But even this great effort was not enough to ease the plight of those trapped in Rukban. The agencies are planning to return in December, but there are reports that supplies from the first aid run have already run out, and that some families did not receive their share.

Like all refugees, those trapped in Rukban have no wish to be there, nor to be raising their children in what the UN describes as one of the most desolate places on earth. They are the victims of powerful forces pursuing agendas over which they have no control. The camp lies in a “de-confliction” zone set up by the Americans around their garrison at nearby Al Tanf. The Syrian government and its Russian allies insist the zone is a safe haven for US-protected rebels. Jordan, which closed its border after a car-bomb attack on a guard post in 2016, claims Rukban is seething with ISIS fighters. Russia has proposed a plan to arrange the “voluntary” return of the refugees to their homelands – not unlike asking them to return to the frying pan from the fire.

Not for the first time, the great powers embroiled in Syria’s disastrous conflict have lost sight of the ordinary people paying the price for their machinations. Children are facing starvation and disease in an area supposedly protected by American troops. Is it too much to ask for that protection to be extended to secure safe passage for the humanitarians of Unicef and the Red Crescent? The aid convoys must get through. If they do not, the name of Rukban will forever stain all those complicit in the tragedy that is poised to unfold there.