In barren desert displacement camp, residents burn plastic bags, diapers to ward off hypothermia

AMMAN: Dozens of residents of a remote displacement camp on the Syrian-Jordanian border suffered from hypothermia in recent weeks during the coldest month of the year, camp officials tell Syria Direct, while the high cost of fuel leaves residents burning clothing and plastic bags for warmth.

January is the coldest time of year in Rukban, a makeshift camp situated in Syria’s barren southeastern desert along the border with Jordan. There, roughly 60,000 displaced Syrians live in the open, empty countryside. Only threadbare tents and mud homes shelter them from temperatures that regularly hover near freezing.

At one medical clinic in Rukban, at least 20 patients came in with symptoms of hypothermia, including extremely low body temperature and loss of consciousness, since the start of January, a nurse in the clinic told Syria Direct this week.

Most of the patients were children and elderly people, some of whom “were left unconscious” due to the cold, says nurse Shukri Shehab. For them, there is little more nurses can do than give patients hot drinks in an attempt to raise their body temperatures.

“There aren’t even enough first aid supplies here,” says Shehab.

Every winter, Rukban residents battle cold temperatures for warmth, but this year is reportedly particularly hard due to the scarcity and high cost of mazot diesel fuel. Residents use mazot to power small heaters, since other heat sources such as firewood are in short supply in the desert landscape.

Fighting in recent months in Syria’s oil-rich eastern desert means the route once used to transport cheap mazot to Rukban is now cut off. Alternative supplies of mazot are arriving from nearby government-held territory, but are simply too expensive for some residents to buy and heat their homes with.

One of the Rukban residents struggling with the cold this winter is Abu Fayez, a 35-year-old father of four living in the camp with his children and elderly father. The family fled Palmyra in 2016 and arrived at Rukban with almost no money. They rely on wire transfers from Abu Fayez’s brother in Jordan as their sole source of income.

Children in Rukban gather garbage for kindling on January 30. Photo courtesy of Shukri Shehab.

Abu Fayez lives in a mud home that he built after settling in Rukban in 2016. Though he owns a sobia, a metal space heater, this year he says he cannot afford the mazot required to keep it running.

Instead, Abu Fayez and his children gather plastic bags that they find scattered across the ground in Rukban and burn them in the sobia for warmth, he tells Syria Direct. When there are no plastic bags, the family burns any other garbage they can find, including diapers.

But while burning trash provides some warmth, Abu Fayez says he worries about his 70-year-old father, who began saying two weeks ago that he felt “like he was going to freeze” and had trouble moving his body.

“My father is dying from this cold weather,” Abu Fayez fears.

High prices

Though Rukban is home to a similar population as most small Syrian cities, the camp is direly short of food, water and medical supplies.

A United Nations aid delivery reached Rukban in early January for the first time in eight months, camp officials told Syria Direct at the time. The delivery did not contain supplies of mazot to heat residents’ tents and mud houses.

Rukban was first settled in 2014 by Syrians fleeing the Islamic State in the country’s east. In previous winters, residents relied on cheap mazot brought in by truckers from Islamic State territory in eastern Syria’s Deir e-Zor province.

But Syrian pro-government forces made lightning advances since last September across the eastern desert, eventually driving out the Islamic State from most of rural Deir e-Zor and cutting off the mazot route once used to reach Rukban.

Now, truckers and salesman bringing mazot to the camp are sourcing the fuel from government-held areas “near Damascus,” mazot trader Meshaal Abu Mohammad tells Syria Direct. Abu Mohammad lives in Rukban, but sells imported government mazot at a station just outside the camp. There, residents purchase the fuel at “very high prices,” he says, due to the higher cost of transportation.

“We have to raise our prices a little bit so we can turn a profit,” Abu Mohammad says.

The price of one liter of mazot varies, Rukban camp president Mohammad a-Darbas al-Khalidi tells Syria Direct, but ranges from SP500 to SP650 (approximately $1 to $1.25).

For Abu Fayez, who is worried about his elderly father’s failing health, the price is simply out of reach. He estimates he would need “about five liters” of mazot per day to keep his mud house sufficiently warm for his 70-year-old father.

“If I buy five liters per day, that means I’m paying around SP3,000 [approx. $6] every day,” he says. Abu Fayez’s brother sends him SP50,000 [approx. $97] every two months from Jordan—not enough money to pay for daily mazot.

Even so, when his father’s condition deteriorated last week, Abu Fayez faced a difficult choice: save what little money remained from what his brother recently sent, or splurge on mazot to keep his father alive. He chose to buy 10 liters of mazot.

Since then, to keep his father warm, Abu Fayez says he uses the fuel to run the sobia for one hour, and “then we go back to burning plastic bags.”

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.