A suspended death

Story and photos by Maryam Al-Faisal, Rukban Network

28 MARCH 2022

Physical disability and material want weigh down on Abu Fares, forty-five years old, displaced, dispirited, besieged in Rukban camp, where he lives with his wife and six children. He wishes they had stayed in their home and died under its ruins, and he tells us his story:

‘I came in 2015 fleeing the city of Palmyra. Death was everywhere, and the hope was to cross the border to Jordan, but we were stuck here in the desert. The place turned into a camp besieged by countries, armed forces, and militias.

‘I am also besieged by my disability. A building accident caused it, and this prevents me from walking and working.

‘Every day, I greet my children with tears at the door. Two of them are fifteen and sixteen years old, and they go to work making mud bricks that are used to build houses in the camp. The work is hard and is very limited—it only lasts a few months a year—and it doesn’t give much by way of a return.

‘The younger boys, they go to collect paper and nylon bags, which we use to light a fire for heating and cooking. They are ashamed, so they do it away from the house and the neighbourhood we are in.

‘One of my sons is tasked with fetching water, which is very scarce, as we are in the desert. He brings it from far away, from a pipe that reaches us from Jordan and is supervised by the United Nations. It is our most important source of clean drinking water, but it is not enough. There are people who sell water, but we cannot buy it.

‘This is what my children do—hard work. They endure extreme cold in winter, and high temperatures in summer, at an age when they should be in school. What we have here are not schools, they are just literacy centres, where children learn to read and write, where education is not recognised, where there are no diplomas given if a child completes primary school. They are losing their future in front of me, and there is nothing I can do.

‘The future of all Rukban’s children is lost. We are in an area controlled by the International Coalition that is spending billions to fight those crazy ISIS people, but it is unable to build a middle school or high school here.

‘In the morning, we often eat only bread, and sometimes we are without food or water for two days. I don’t remember once that any of my family members felt full. Deprived of the most simple foods, different vegetables, canned goods, fruits and meat, we started to forget their taste.

‘My children bathe in a shower with no roof. In winter, taking a shower turns to torment. They wash in the rain and in the cold. They do it quickly and rush to the stove, which we use for cooking, heating, and making our bread.

‘At night we gather together. Our house has no door, and we close the windows with the pillows we are supposed to sleep on, and the floor of the house is furnished with a plastic cover and mats, and when the fire goes out, we wrap ourselves in the covers. Everyone sleeps, and I cover my face and cry.

‘Insomnia is my guest every night, and I remember, and memories are like a knife cutting my heart—the constant question—why are we here?

‘And my answer is that we came because of war, bombing and killing, we escaped death, but I say to myself every night, we escaped from a quick death to a slow death.

‘I also cry for my wife. The weariness of her life pains me. She diligently raises and feeds the family. This woman is more precious than gold, and I will not be able to reward her.

‘Rukban camp is unlike any other camp. Those camps are a dream and a paradise for us. Everyone has abandoned Rukban, even the United Nations and the International Coalition to fight ISIS. And it is the de-facto authority here, but they do not provide us with anything.

‘We die of cold and hunger and the absence of medical care, and we bury our loved ones near the headquarters of the Coalition, and they do not move a finger. Where is their humanity?

‘There are even Syrians who do not care about us. Dealing with us in Rukban in this way, everyone neglecting us, everyone alike, it is terrorism, no less than the terrorism of ISIS and the regime. ISIS beheads fast, they kill us slowly. We would prefer a quick death. I have given up, and my disability increases my sense of helplessness and oppression. Everything is lost.’