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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 April 2019

Hundreds of Syrians leave Rukban camp for government controlled areas

More than 90 per cent of Rukban’s 45,000 residents want to leave, but few want to live under Assad

This file photo shows a man carrying a box of humanitarian aid distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Cresent at Rukban Camp, 07 November 2018. EPA
This file photo shows a man carrying a box of humanitarian aid distributed by the Syrian Arab Red Cresent at Rukban Camp, 07 November 2018. EPA

About 360 displaced Syrians left Rukban Camp on the Jordanian border to return to government-controlled territory last week, the Russian Defence Ministry said.

Russia has long pushed for the evacuation of Rukban, claiming that US-backed rebels were holding people there against their will.

But when Russia opened a “humanitarian corridor” into Rukban this month, few in the camp returned to government-held areas and many said they feared forced repatriation.

Those who were moved last week were mostly woman and children.

“They received necessary aid and they are provided with food and accommodation,” said Viktor Kupchishin, head of the Russian Defence Ministry's Centre for Syrian Reconciliation.

The camp is home to about 45,000 displaced Syrians who are living in dire conditions, with a severe lack of food and medical supplies.

More than 90 per cent of Rukban residents told the UN in a survey in February that they wanted to leave the camp.

Most would prefer to leave for Jordan or rebel-controlled areas in northern Syria.

Instead, they face the choice of staying in limbo or returning to live under the government of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad.

“We are not willing to step foot in Assad’s territory,” said Nasr Hretane, 31, a teacher who lives in the camp.

“We would rather die here of starvation if this is what the regime is gambling on.”

Men in the camp fear that if they return to government areas they may face interrogation, arrest or forced conscription.

“A few men who I know personally left recently through the corridors and were arrested a few days later,” said Shukre Shehab, official spokesman for Rukban camp.

“Now they have disappeared forever, into regime prisons probably.”

But with conditions in the camp deteriorating, some feel they have no choice but to leave.

Jasem, another resident, said he recently sent his family back to government-controlled areas.

“I didn’t have any alternative," he said. "No medical care, no food, milk, medicine. I didn’t want them to die.”

There has been event less food in the camp recently because the Syrian government has shut smuggling routes into Rukban.

“The Assad regime used to allow a good chunk of food through smugglers in the desert to enter the camp to be sold,” Jasem said.

“In the past prices were expensive. Now food is not available any more for the majority of families in the camp.”

A meeting held on Tuesday at a corridor outside the camp to discuss evacuations and the humanitarian situation ended in failure, Mr Shehab said.

The meeting was attended by Russian military, Syrian government officials, the UN and Rukban residents. It was convened to arrange food supplies and agree on a format for departure.

“The meeting was sadly useless," Mr Shehab said. "The Russians and regime weren’t interested in supporting civilians in the camp or allowing the arrival of any sort of aid.

“They only indicated that they are fully ready to accept anyone who wants to leave for regime territory, promising them support and aid whenever they are out.”

Updated: March 27, 2019 02:11 AM

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