Dire conditions in al-Hol and Rukban camps fuel fears of ISIS resurgence
BEIRUT - A video that went viral on social media in mid-July showed a handmade Islamic State flag hoisted in the Kurdish-administered al-Hol camp, perched high in north-eastern Syria.
Terrorism watchers panicked as a voice was heard in the video saying “baqiya” (“remaining”) in reference to the Islamic State’s infamous motto: “Baqiya wa Tatamaddad” (“Remaining and Expanding”).
Another video showed a woman in al-Hol appealing to Islamic State (ISIS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to “liberate” the camp from the Kurds.
Syrians shook their heads in dismay, saying that an ISIS comeback was only natural, given the poverty and deprivation that locals are subjected to in al-Hol and Rukban camp, which is along Syria’s border with Jordan.
Both are potential time bombs that, unless dealt with in an urgent and serious manner, will blow up in the not-too-distant future, leading to more radicalisation and violence.
Despite one appeal after another from international aid agencies, few mainstream media have picked up reports about the 70,000 people stranded in al-Hol. Some of them will undoubtedly turn to ISIS or any local alternative if Kurdish authorities continue to treat them in such a disrespectful manner.
Residents of al-Hol complain they lack everything from electricity and clean running water to basic medicine and food, because of hording, corruption and wobbly administration of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
None of the hospitals in al-Hol are working at full capacity and many of the doctors are unlicensed, explaining why many lives have been lost after widespread malnutrition and diarrhoea were recorded at the camp this summer.
Originally set up to house refugees from Iraq during the wars of 1991 and 2003, al-Hol is ill-prepared to accommodate the large number of refugees who flocked to its gates in recent months.
Approximately 30,000 of its residents are children — 20,000 Syrians and 10,000 Iraqis. Of the registered households in the camp, 8,700 are Iraqis and 11,000 are foreigners, many of whom are generally believed to have been either former members or affiliates of ISIS. They fled to al-Hol after the collapse of its final stronghold in Baghouz four months ago.
The Italian NGO Un Ponte Per, one of the few international groups operating in al-Hol, said conditions in the camp hover “on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.”
Its personnel work closely with the Kurdish Red Crescent but complain of a lack of attention from the SDF, which seemingly places al-Hol at the end of its priority list, preferring to provide services to Kurdish citizens under its jurisdiction, rather than to Arabs in the camp.
The SDF allows most of al-Hol’s residents, especially women and children, to leave for treatment in Kurdish hospitals outside the camp but that is often a troublesome process that involves bribes to Kurdish militiamen.
They are unable to seek shelter or work outside the camp. Syrian authorities only recently accepted that a handful of Deir ez-Zor natives living in al-Hol be allowed to return to their city and the Iraqi government gave clearance to 2,000 Iraqi citizens to cross the border into Iraq. Promises to repatriate internally displaced persons from Raqqa and Tabqa have not been fulfilled since June.
Neither the Syrian government, the Iraqis, the Russians nor the SDF seem to mind what is happening in al-Hol, broadly looping its population into “ISIS-affiliates.” The raising of the ISIS flag in July added credit to this argument.
They say that apart from condemnation and warnings from the United Nations, the international community will do nothing to help the residents of al-Hol. They say their condition will change only when other issues, such as the future of Kurdish territories, are dealt with.
If an agreement is reached between the SDF and Damascus calling for the gradual return of government troops to the Kurdish areas, al-Hol would be transferred to Syrian government control and the Kurds would no longer have to worry about it. That, however, is far-fetched.
The situation in Rukban remains equally tragic but the number of people in the ad hoc camp was greatly reduced in recent weeks, under pressure from the international community.
Jordanian authorities permitted residents of Rukban to enter Jordan from 2014, when the camp was set up, until June 2016, when they sealed off access, claiming that ISIS cells were operating in Rukban.
That summer a car crossed into Jordan from Rukban and exploded near a Jordanian military outpost, killing six Jordanian soldiers. Since then, all crossings into Jordan have been suspended and only recently have residents of Rukban been allowed to enter Syria.
In late May, Syrian authorities agreed to allow 13,153 residents of Rukban to move inward, transferring them to UN shelters in Homs and then giving them a choice of destination, with priority given to their areas of origin, provided that they were safe and accessible to Syrian state buses. The collective shipment of the 13,153 people was painfully slow, because of its high cost and the lack of vehicles.
That left Rukban with 12,000 residents, still a large number, all suffering from lack of drinking water, poor medication, malnutrition, lack of schools, inappropriate sanitation and infrequent access to humanitarian aid. The remaining population, mostly women and children, are not allowed to cross into other parts of Syria, awaiting new permits from Syrian authorities.
Those permits do not seem near because Damascus claims that approximately 4,000 of those in Rukban are former jihadists, from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham or the ISIS-affiliate in southern Syria known as the Khaled Ibn Al-Walid Army.
They did not apply to leave to avoid arrest by Syrian authorities, choosing to stay behind, Damascus says, to recruit teenage militants from those left in the camp.
Sadly, many professionals — mainly teachers, nurses, food merchants and farmers — left Rukban in recent weeks. Those remaining were either women and children or those deemed “dangerous” — such as ex-convicts, former militants, drug sellers and kidnappers — by the camp’s population. In August 2018, Russian spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said ISIS members were hiding in the camp, using its civilians as human shields.