Al-Rukban camp residents dismiss Russian 'lies' about evacuations
By Waleed Abu al-Khair in Cairo
Residents of al-Rukban camp are the subject of a Russian misinformation and propaganda campaign again, this time regarding the evacuation of camp residents with assistance from the UN.
In August, the UN said it will help evacuate civilians from the "abysmal" Syrian desert camp near the border with Jordan, after a mission determined who wanted to leave.
The isolated camp is located near a base used by the international coalition fighting the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
"We are ready to facilitate" evacuations from the al-Rukban camp, Panos Moumtzis, the UN's Syria humanitarian chief, told AFP on August 30th. "We want to make sure it happens in a voluntary way."
With voluntary evacuations set to begin at the end of September, Russia accused the US and Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, a Free Syrian Army faction backed by the international coalition, of preventing residents from leaving the camp.
The evacuation is "on the verge of collapse due to provocations of fighters under the control of the US", Russian Gen. Mikhail Mezentsev told a press conference September 18th, Lebanon-based al-Wassat News reported.
According to the general, the Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra fighters refused to ensure the security of the evacuation convoys and looted part of the humanitarian aid distributed to camp residents.
Russia's 'obvious lies'
Al-Rukban camp residents and relief workers, however, refute these claims.
"The Russian statements made in conjunction with the propaganda campaign are nothing but obvious lies," Mohammed Ahmad Derbas, vice president of the Palmyra and Badiya Tribal Council and head of the local council in al-Rukban camp, told Diyaruna.
"Those who decided to stay in the camp did so of their own free will without any pressure from any side," he said.
Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra is composed mainly of camp residents who hail from more than one area, and their mission is to protect the camp and its residents from any attack, he said.
They have fought fierce battles against ISIS, which tried to harm civilians in the camp, and repelled regime forces when they tried to advance in the Badiya desert surrounding the camp, Derbas said.
Al-Rukban relief worker Tariq al-Nuaimi confirmed that camp residents who wanted to leave have already left.
"The number of internally displaced people in the camp has dropped from 50,000 to 12,700 according to the latest census conducted with UN participation about a month ago," he told Diyaruna.
Humanitarian aid suspended
The UN and the Syrian Red Crescent sent a mission to the camp in August to determine how many people remained inside and who wanted to leave, according to Moumtzis, the UN official.
"A little bit more than a third of them want to leave," he said. "The vast majority want to go into government-held areas and some others want to go to the north," held by the opposition.
Some 47% of surveyed camp residents said they wanted to stay, citing reasons including "security concerns" and "fear of detention".
Those who remain in the camp "categorically refuse to return to the areas controlled by the [Syrian] regime, Russian troops and Iranian militias because of political differences and for fear of being pursued if they return to their areas", al-Nuaimi said.
Humanitarian aid has been suspended as a result of Russia's lies about Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra fighters stealing aid, he said.
"This is absolutely untrue, as all the food that entered the camp has been distributed and medical teams are continuing to provide services and medicine, but face the prospect of having to stop work when supplies run out," he said.
The start of the winter season will increase "the suffering of the camp's residents under the siege imposed by Russia and regime forces -- who will block the entry of any aid unless it is done through them and in the presence of the Syrian Red Crescent", al-Nuaimi said.
The camp's market is experiencing a severe shortage of supplies because traders are not allowed to bring in any goods from regime-controlled areas, the only side from which the goods can enter, he added.
Russia's claims 'laughable'
Bassem al-Akaidat, a 40-year-old resident of the camp, said Russia's lies are "laughable", especially those related to the theft of aid by Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra fighters, many of whom are residents of the camp.
"Would they steal the aid from their relatives?" he said, adding that Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra members who live in the camp have distributed their food rations on more than one occasion to those in dire need.
"How could one who gives up his food ration to camp residents steal aid?"
Al-Rukban residents are facing attempts to evacuate them by force toward regime-controlled areas, but they have blocked buses sent by the regime to transport them to areas under its control, al-Akaidat told Diyaruna.
"The regime and Russia are trying to make it appear as though Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra and coalition forces are the reason civilians and remaining residents are not leaving the camp," he said. "This is an outright lie."
The only reason the regime and Russia announced last February they had opened corridors out of the camp, calling on residents to leave, is to portray themselves as "saviours", he said.
In reality, those who had left the camp and moved to regime areas were subjected to harassment by security forces and dozens of families are still being held in shelter centres and not allowed to return to their villages and towns.