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Escape from Rukban: Syria’s deadly, men-only desert smuggling route

Escape from Rukban: Syria’s deadly, men-only desert smuggling route

It was just before sunset last month when a dozen or so young men set out from Rukban, a remote, rocky and desolate settlement that straddles the Syrian-Jordanian border.

A long and especially bitter winter had just reached its end. Basic food and medical supplies had been in desperately short supply for months and were continuing to diminish by the day.

Rukban is cut off from the rest of the country by a vast expanse of empty desert. The journey to rebel-held territory in the north takes 12 hours, is off road and must be done in the dark, despite it being a treacherous route, riddled with rock formations that jut out from the ground and a slew of pro-government military factions.

Using the few roads that cross the desert and headlights to illuminate the way was out of the question – it would make them easier to detect, and that could mean arrest.

“It was very difficult,” says Muhammad, who paid desert smugglers to guide him through the long journey. The men we spoke to asked that their full names were not used for security reasons.

As fears mount over a growing push to dismantle and evacuate Rukban, men, who are vulnerable to arrest by the Syrian regime or compulsory military conscription, are eyeing escape from the camp.

“I’m afraid to go to regime areas – I used to work with the opposition, and I haven’t done my [government-mandated] military service,” Muhammad tells The National from Afrin in north-eastern Syria, where the 24-year-old now lives after making the journey in April.

He describes the desert route as being shrouded in darkness. “There were men who would fall off their motorbikes because we couldn’t turn on the lights,” he said. “We stayed on the same stretch of desert for about 12 hours – 150 kilometres of just desert.”