The United Nations and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent reached the Rukban camp in southeast Syria with 118 trucks packed with food supplies, basic medicines, education items and children’s recreational kits.
Aid workers arrived on Wednesday night after tortuous negotiations with the Syrian government, and are expected to spend a week distributing material to the camp’s 40,000 residents.
Trapped between Jordan on one side and the US-backed rebel forces on the other, Rukban received aid just twice in the last year, in January and November.
Sajjad Malik, UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, said: “This large-scale delivery of essential humanitarian supplies to the extremely vulnerable in Rukban happened not a moment too soon.”
About 80 percent of the inhabitants of Rukban are women and children. At least eight children died this winter in freezing temperatures and because of a lack of adequate medical care.
Jordan, the Syrian government, and the US with its local allies have played a part in hindering aid supplies. Jordan shut its borders in 2016 and stopped the aid flow, while the Syrian government has used the squeeze as a strategy to coerce people to give in to Bashar al-Assad‘s rule.
The Syrian government allowed the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) to join forces with the UN to supply the aid.
In a statement, SARC said vaccines would also be given to the children. “A vaccination campaign will be launched, under the supervision of a medical team, to immunise children against measles, polio, tuberculosis and hepatitis,” it said.
Imad Ghali, an activist at the camp, described the moment the aid arrived. “I saw faces full of happiness, a scene that I’ve never seen in a long time,” he said. “It was like dead people returning to life.”
Ghali said people gathered to collect the aid despite the rain and the storm in the camp on Thursday.
He said the trucks carried more than 8,000 food baskets containing rice, hummus, lentils, oil, sugar and wheat.
Ghali said the camp was still lacking doctors and medical facilities, including specialised equipment.
“We have almost 200 people who need specialised urgent care and treatment, like pregnant women who need caesarean operations,” he said. There was nothing to help those suffering from conflict injuries, he added.
Nejm, one of the displaced Syrians in the camp, said while the aid would provide the much-needed relief, it was too late for the families who had lost their babies.
“What can they do with it now?” he said. “It is very, very late for them.”
Nejm, a father of two, said even though the supplies were in the camp, he had to wait for his turn.
The first to receive aid were the people of the Bani Khaled tribe in the camp. The displaced from the historic city of Palmyra were next in line and then those from al-Qaryatayn and other areas.
Nejm said there was corruption in the camp and urged aid workers to pay attention to the people who distributed aid.
“I am from Palmyra, so our head will go and collect it, but sometimes wrong people claim aid for people and later sell it in the camp,” he said.
He also said help should be sent every month for as long as the people were still in the camp. He begged for a lasting solution to his plight for the sake of his son and other children.
“My son was forced to leave school four years ago. He is just sitting around doing nothing. He has lost his future,” Nejm said. “We want to go to the north on the border with Turkey, we want to leave.”
‘Safe exit route needed’
Abdulfattah Basleh, a teacher in the camp, also demanded a safe exit route, saying he was desperate to stop living off aid.
“We lose children, our women’s health deteriorates and after we pay this price, the UN starts to mourn us and delivers aid as if they are the heroic saviour of the refugees,” he said.
“I ask for the opening of safe corridors under international guarantees to let people go to the north or to regime-held areas.”
Other than distributing aid, the UN and the SARC will also be conducting “an intention survey” to assess how many residents in the camp wish to leave voluntarily and to where.
Malik of the UN admitted the delivery of assistance could only be a temporary measure.
“A long-term, safe, voluntary and dignified solution for tens of thousands of people, many of whom have been staying at the Rukban settlement for more than two years in desperate conditions, is urgently needed,” Malik said.
Some people on the ground expressed a will to go to areas controlled by the government and others such as Nejm preferred the last rebel-held enclave on the border with Turkey.
Nejm said he hopes if he can get to northern Syria, he may be able to take his family to another country, somewhere he would feel safe.
“If we go back to the regime, they might arrest us or ask us to join the army,” he said, voicing a fear of many.