In the middle of the desert, hundreds of miles from the nearest city, 60,000 Syrians are camped out along the Syrian and Jordanian border in what has become one of the biggest and most desperate refugee settlements in the region. Few outsiders have ever seen it.
NPR visited an area near the camp last week in a trip organized by the Jordanian military.
Aid groups, who have no direct access to the three-year-old camp, track its growth by analyzing satellite imagesshowing thousands of makeshift tents clustered between two berms — earthen embankments in a no-man's land along Jordan's far northeastern border.
Jordan says the camp, located in no-man's land between the two countries, is infiltrated by ISIS and won't allow any aid workers to go there. With limited food getting through, some children are in danger of starving.
"The United Nations staff doesn't have access to the no-man's land, so the assistance has to be provided from this end," Helene Daubelcour, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, tells NPR at a U.N.-funded clinic on the Jordanian side of the border, more than a mile from the camp. "The area is now a closed military zone, so we are helping as close as we can — but we cannot go on the other side of the berm."
From the closest point that aid workers are allowed to go, the tents in the camp are visible only as white dots in the distance.
Sand swirls around the aid compound, which is protected by Jordanian tanks and edged with barbed wire. Outside a clinic operating from a trailer, refugee women sit in plastic chairs, holding coughing children.
Enshara Mustafa has brought her four-year-old granddaughter, Nada. The little girl with wide brown eyes burned her leg with scalding water two days earlier. But she also suffers from asthma, and they couldn't move her in a sandstorm the day before.
"It's like death," says Mustafa, when I ask her what the camp is like. "They send us aid every two or three months. We can't even afford to buy an aspirin."
She and her family left Homs more than a year ago, she says, after their house was destroyed.
"We kept moving from one place to another, and every place we went, there were airstrikes," she says. Finally, they reached the Jordanian border and could go no further.
Jordan has always restricted access to the refugees at Rukban, but after a suicide car bomb at a checkpoint killed seven Jordanian border guards last June, it sealed the border with Syria entirely.
ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack.
"Everything is different after the bombing," says Sabah Jaradeen, a retired Jordanian army officer who runs a UNICEF-funded feeding center for children. She says before the attack and the restrictions, she and her team used to see more than 100 children a day – assessing them and treating the ones who were malnourished. Now, she says, "The number depends on the military bringing them in the morning and taking them back."
UNICEF says on a typical day there are fewer than a dozen children brought in. It has seen 16 severely malnourished infants since its clinic opened in December.
In November, the U.N. was allowed to drop food across the border, after months of negotiations with the Jordanian government. To reduce the risk, Jordan required that it be dropped into the no-man's land from cranes.
The U.N. has set up a center in the neutral zone, where refugee community leaders are responsible for distributing U.N.-provided food. But the last delivery of a month's supply of food for the refugees ran out more than a month ago. People are relying, when they can, on stockpiled food, are using whatever money they have to buy more — or, as with the malnourished children, they're not eating at all.
As for water, to minimize risk, UNICEF pumps it into Rukban from Jordanian reservoirs rather than trucking it in. Calculating the rate of water consumption, in addition to analyzing the satellite imagery, is what helps the U.N. estimate the number of people in the camp, the U.N.'s Daubelcour says.
Only refugees who are brought to a checkpoint by Rukban community leaders and are searched by Jordanian border guards are allowed access to the U.N. medical clinic. The border guards transport patients to the clinic and then take them back again to the checkpoint after they are treated.
"We try our best to advocate with the government of Jordan," says Samir Badran of UNICEF, "and we hope there will be a solution in the long run."
Jordanian Brig. Gen. Barakat al-Aqeel says his border force is implementing a political decision by the Jordanian government to close the border. While 90 percent of the residents of Rukban are ordinary civilians, he says, another 10 percent are affiliated with ISIS.
"The danger is very high," he tells us. "We are always expecting the worst regarding the possibility of anyone carrying explosives to blow up our soldiers."
As we speak, residents of the camp bring an elderly man on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance on the Jordanian side of the border. The man's family members stop at the nearest point they're allowed to come – a checkpoint between sand-filled barriers topped with barbed wire.
"It's far from ideal if you have to operate without full access to the population," Daubelcour says. "It's difficult to understand their needs and address them in the way we would like to do."
And then she and the other U.N. staff leave to return to Amman. The U.N.'s own security rules deem this desert too dangerous for their staff to be out after dark.
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