It was just before sunset last month when a dozen or so young men set out from Rukban, a remote, rocky and desolate settlement that straddles the Syrian-Jordanian border.
A long and especially bitter winter had just reached its end. Basic food and medical supplies had been in desperately short supply for months and were continuing to diminish by the day.
Rukban is cut off from the rest of the country by a vast expanse of empty desert. The journey to rebel-held territory in the north takes 12 hours, is off road and must be done in the dark, despite it being a treacherous route, riddled with rock formations that jut out from the ground and a slew of pro-government military factions.
Using the few roads that cross the desert and headlights to illuminate the way was out of the question – it would make them easier to detect, and that could mean arrest.
“It was very difficult,” says Muhammad, who paid desert smugglers to guide him through the long journey. The men we spoke to asked that their full names were not used for security reasons.
As fears mount over a growing push to dismantle and evacuate Rukban, men, who are vulnerable to arrest by the Syrian regime or compulsory military conscription, are eyeing escape from the camp.
"I'm afraid to go to regime areas – I used to work with the opposition, and I haven't done my [government-mandated] military service," Muhammad tells The National from Afrin in north-eastern Syria, where the 24-year-old now lives after making the journey in April.
He describes the desert route as being shrouded in darkness. “There were men who would fall off their motorbikes because we couldn’t turn on the lights,” he said. “We stayed on the same stretch of desert for about 12 hours – 150 kilometres of just desert.”
Another former Rukban resident, Najoum, who made the journey last month, recalls how the men who accompanied him were fearful of landmines.
“It was very difficult for us. We heard about people who had encountered mines and explosions along the way,” said Najoum.
Rukban sits within a barren no-man’s-land between the borders of the two countries and is known as “the Berm”. According to the latest United Nations figures, some 30,000 people live there in improvised tents and mud homes, most of them having fled from rural parts of eastern Homs province after ISIS invaded.
They had hoped to cross into Jordanian territory via a nearby border point, but in 2016, an ISIS-claimed car bombing killed several Jordanian soldiers that were stationed at a military outpost. Amman quickly shuttered the border and declared the surrounding area a military zone.
Residents found themselves trapped in a barren patch of desert that, even before the war, had no infrastructure. There were no hospitals, schools, or even nearby towns or villages. They built their own makeshift pharmacies, grocery stores and livestock markets. A handful of nurses used whatever supplies they could find to treat people in the few informal medical clinics that were scattered throughout the camp. Schools were set up in tents and one-room mud buildings.
The settlement lies within a 55km zone of nominal rebel control with the backing of US forces based at a nearby military garrison. Previously, most of the supplies came from smugglers, who transported them from government-controlled areas of the country and charged high prices, but their routes were cut off late last year. Organised aid deliveries usually only arrive once a year, the most recent of which, from the UN and Syrian government-affiliated aid agency SARC, reached Rukban in February.
The Syrian government and Russia announced evacuations via a “humanitarian corridor” in February. Checkpoints set up in government-controlled territory outside Rukban “meet, receive, distribute and provide necessary assistance” to the internally displaced people leaving the camp, according to a Russian Ministry of Defence statement.
More than 10,000 people have left since late March via the corridor, according to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman David Swanson. They boarded the government’s green evacuation buses headed for Homs, where they are being held in reception centres that have reportedly been set up in former public school buildings.
Their exact whereabouts and living conditions, however, remain largely a mystery. Communication is mostly cut off once they cross into government territory – they enter into the mostly unknown. Little more substantial than rumours of the fate that awaits them have reached Rukban, but there is talk of Syrian government guards separating women and children from men in holding centres in Homs city.
There are also accusations of a shooting last month, with two men who had attempted an escape from one of the holding centres allegedly killed. The stories are unconfirmed, but they are enough to make Rukban's men wary of taking the government's route out.
Syrian men fear returning to regime territory
In one corner of Rukban’s sprawl of mud homes, Ziad, 24, is weighing up his options. His home town in rural Homs province has changed hands from ISIS to the Syrian government since he fled years ago.
He has a somewhat steady income – for Rukban, at least – as a journalist and media activist and gets what he can out of life, despite living in a barren eastern desert. But amid the recent wave of evacuations, and talk of dismantling the settlement, Ziad is considering a way out.
“I won’t return to regime territory,” he says, speaking one afternoon earlier this month over Whatsapp. “They killed our families and imprisoned us. They are taking young men into the army.”
As a young man, susceptible to arrest or conscription should he return to his home town, he says he has few other options but to send his family home and join one of the motorbike smuggling convoys through the desert.
“If the situation in Rukban keeps getting more difficult, I’ll take the same route” says Ziad.
“If I’m forced to leave, I’ll buy a motorbike [in the camp] and will go with the smugglers.”
Many in the settlement say the smugglers come from a tribe in Rukban, with roots in Syria’s eastern desert. Ziad isn’t the first in his family to reach that decision. His cousin took the journey in March, eventually reaching Idlib province, the last major zone of opposition control in Syria after years of pro-government military advances.
The last time Ziad saw him, he was working in one of Rukban’s makeshift markets selling fuel canisters.
“He told me that he was going to travel north with a group of men going there via a smuggling route,” says Ziad.
“He said to me, ‘don’t let my family know I’m taking this route, not until I arrive [in Idlib]’.’’
Ziad estimates that the route has been active for the past three months. Although it is difficult to accurately count the number of men who have fled north, Rukban-based citizen journalist Emad Ghali estimates that more than a hundred have taken the smuggling route. There has been an sharp rise in departures since the evacuation corridor was announced.
“People are sending their families to regime territory and then leaving [Rukban] via the motorbike route,” he says.
A ‘slow death’ in Rukban
For the tens of thousands of Syrians still left behind in Rukban, there is little to sustain daily life. An especially brutal winter has taken its toll on residents – the UN estimates that at least 12 children, including newborn babies, perished due to a lack of vital medicine.
Camp residents have long described living the conditions as a “slow death” and UNOCHA’s Mr Swanson says life there “remains dire”. There is limited access to urgently needed humanitarian assistance.
One camp resident, who requested anonymity for security reasons, said there is a near total lack of even the most basic food items.
“Even if something is in supply, it is extremely expensive,” he says. “There are no vegetables. No rice, grains or flour.”
“Those who are leaving the camp are leaving behind the hunger.”
Muhammad, recalling his life in Rukban, says the scarcity of nearly all necessities made the risky motorbike trip worth it. And since leaving the settlement, he has married his fiancée in Afrin.
“People are fleeing death to a possible death on the smuggling route,” he says.
“It's a similar death, just one that isn’t in Rukban.”