In displacement camp along Syrian border, ‘the strong devour the weak’ as rule of law fades

AMMAN: Fighters from three rebel factions have killed dozens of civilians in a remote desert displacement camp in recent months because of “tribal feuds,” civilians and a source with knowledge of the camp’s structure told Syria Direct. 

The site of the violence is Rukban, a poorly supplied informal settlement of more than 75,000 displaced Syrians located within an isolated no-man’s-land along the eastern Syrian-Jordanian border known as “the berm.”

Rukban residents, who hail from an array of tribes from the towns and villages that dot eastern Syria, now live crammed alongside one another in the encampment. Food and water are scarce; the remote location makes access difficult and the main water line supplying the camp ruptured in mid-June and has not yet been repaired.

Summer temperatures are soaring in the surrounding desert, threatening heat stroke. Healthcare options, as Syria Direct’s camp source describes them, are stuck “in the Stone Age.” The source, who asked to remain anonymous because he fears reprisals, will be referred to as Ramzi throughout the report.

In recent months, lawlessness in the camp has increased due to a potent combination of fighters from competing factions, tribal grievances and lack of consequence for criminal behavior, Ramzi said.

Armed fighters from at least three rebel brigades—Usud a-Sharqia, Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair and Maghawir a-Thawra use their furlough time to visit their family members inside Rukban. Since May, at least 25 people have been killed in camp violence involving rebel fighters, according to Ramzi.

 Rukban residents protesting Jaish Ahrar al-Ashair’s presence within the camp in February. Photo courtesy of Tribal Council of Palmyra and Badia.

Guns come out when aid is distributed, when disputes occur, or for no clear reason at all, Ramzi and two camp residents told Syria Direct.

This past February, camp residents formed a civilian administration in an attempt to rein in the gun violence. But the chaos returned “because of a lack of commitment by the factions to stop the gunfire,” Ramzi, the camp insider said. “At one point in May, armed gunmen opened fire at the wedding of a fighter, and afterward the situation deteriorated even further.”

The camp’s administrators appointed a judge to mediate disputes, but he left the post, reportedly out of fear “of getting on the wrong side of the factions,” Ramzi told Syria Direct.

Representatives from the three main militias in Rukban told Syria Direct this week that they acknowledge the violence, but say they are the ones attempting to establish some form of law and order inside the camp.

“We are trying to secure the camp," Maghawir a-Thawra commander Muhannad al-Talaa told Syria Direct. "There are many problems in the camp arising from water and aid distribution."

Some of the clashes stem from old, pre-war tribal feuds, the rebel spokesman said, while others are “simple disagreements” among gunmen that happen when fighters are off-duty.

Usud a-Sharqia spokesman Younis Salemeh denied accusations of violence against Rukban civilians, adding that the group “forbids” its fighters from entering the camp.

“The camp is like a jungle," said the spokesman.

Mohammad al-Adnan, the spokesman for Ahrar al-Ashair—the largest faction inside Rukban—described the camp as "an undisciplined environment."

“We guarantee an investigation into any fighter who crosses the line with residents and civilians except in cases of self-defense," said the spokesman. The faction’s purpose inside the camp, he added, is "only to protect the aid distribution area."

 Rukban camp on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Abu Omar.

Residents tell a different story. The camp residents and source interviewed for this story told Syria Direct that armed men in the camp—who they say are affiliated with the factions—are committing acts of violence against defenseless civilians.

Among those recently targeted is 38-year-old Abu Omar, who has lived in Rukban with his wife and four children since fleeing their hometown of Palmyra in early 2016. At the time, Islamic State fighters had been in control of the city for nearly one year.

But in Rukban, Abu Omar and his family found little respite. Last month his eight-year-old son hit a playmate whose father, says Abu Omar, happened to be a fighter from the Free Syrian Army-aligned Usud a-Sharqia militia.

“He came up to me and started firing gunshots into the air, throwing insults at me and hitting me because of my son,” Abu Omar told Syria Direct on Monday. “Nobody dared approach him.”

Violence by rebel fighters against civilians is “widespread,” Ramzi confirmed.

In June, a Maghawir a-Thawra fighter reportedly murdered a man and his son, “right in front of the man’s wife,” he said, over what appeared to be a “verbal quarrel”—though the US-backed faction's spokesman denied the claim.

Around the same time, Usud a-Sharqia gunmen also reportedly killed a displaced man from Palmyra.

In other instances, fighters from Ahrar al-Ashair—a Jordanian-backed militia—fired on camp residents “with the goal of taking humanitarian aid or water,” the source said.

‘The strong devour the weak’

Security troubles are not new to Rukban. A car bomb exploded at a military outpost near Rukban in June 2016, killing seven Jordanian soldiers and prompting the kingdom to close its two northeast border crossings with Syria.

The Islamic State later claimed responsibility for the explosion and a series of other deadly car bomb attacks in the camp and its outskirts since then.

But Rukban’s tribal social dynamics also pose a threat for those unable to defend themselves from camp-wide tensions. Residents hailing from small tribes and families are the most vulnerable, with few others willing—or brave—enough to stand up for them amid violent disputes.

For Abu Omar, the father of four, that means there is little he can do to demand justice from the Usud a-Sharqia fighter who assaulted him last month. “I’m from one of the many minority tribes here,” he said. “Nobody is able to right this wrong for me in the camp.”

“Someone here who doesn’t belong to a large tribe, or who doesn’t have anyone in their tribe who belongs to an armed faction, has their rights vanish in the jungle that we are living in.”

To fight the feeling of helplessness among those like Abu Omar, a group of the camp's tribal leaders convened in February to announce the formation of a civil administrative council. The goal, officials told Syria Direct at the time, was to bring “a halt to this chaos and lack of security.”

The council established a police force, passed a decree banning all weapons inside the camp and called on armed groups to leave. Those caught bearing arms inside camp grounds were ordered to pay a fine.

For a time, relative calm did seem to hold. Gunfire diminished, and violent crime appeared to slow down, residents say.

But only four months later, “the gunfire started once again—even in broad daylight,” and a sense of lawlessness returned, said Umm Khaled, a resident of the camp and a mother of three. In February, she was shot in the hand by gunfire from an unknown source.

“There are no laws to protect civilians here in the camp.”

Justice and rule of law within Rukban, Ramzi told Syria Direct, “vary based on the resident…there is no authority to protect those who have no tribe.”

“The strong devour the weak.”

Today, Abu Omar says his most urgent need is safety—more so than “daily necessities or medicine.”

“Who knows—perhaps we will die here before returning back to Syria.”

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.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.