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Tens of thousands of Syrians have gathered in the desert near the Jordanian border. It's a remote area, a last option for people who have nowhere else to go. They're hundreds of miles from any town. Some of the children are starving. Aid groups are barred from going to them. NPR's Jane Arraf traveled with the Jordanian military to get as close as she could.
JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: This is the rattling and the squeaking of a flatbed truck. There is no road here, and we're driving through the desert. On the right there is a big sand embankment, a berm. And there's nothing else around for miles except off-in-the-distance tanks facing in the direction of the Syrian border. It's a little hard to see because there's so much dust.
We're headed to the border crossing of Rukban in the middle of the desert, 300 miles from the Jordanian capital and almost 200 miles from the nearest Syrian city. We finally arrive at a small compound behind barbed wire. A few miles away, there are more than 60,000 refugees in a no-man's-land between Jordan and Syria. Jordan sealed its border after a bombing last year at a security checkpoint, and this is as far as journalists and aid agencies can go.
HELENE DAUBELCOUR: 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.
ARRAF: That's Helene Daubelcour, a spokeswoman for the U.N.'s refugee agency. The little they know about Rukban camp is from satellite images and community leaders screened and searched before being allowed to come across.
DAUBELCOUR: You can imagine that the population you have here is the population of a city - of a small city where you would normally find hospitals, schools, water, electricity. And here, apart from the water that is being delivered, you don't have this infrastructure.
ARRAF: It's just desert, and the situation is dire, she says.
DAUBELCOUR: We have to go, so...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: OK.
ARRAF: And then she and the other U.N. staff leave. U.N. rules prevent them from staying in this desert after dark. Subcontractors operate the clinics. After the suicide bombing last year, Jordan shut down a much larger aid operation closer to the camp. This clinic has been open since December. It treats only refugees brought here by the Jordanian military and then returned when they're well.
One of them is Enshera Mustafa. She's here with her 4-year-old granddaughter, Nada. Nada is being treated for a burned leg and severe asthma.
ENSHERA MUSTAFA: (Through interpreter) Life there is like death. They send us food every two or three months but nothing else. We can't afford to buy an aspirin.
ARRAF: The Rukban camp was their last option. They had fled the Syrian city of Homs after their house was destroyed, and then they moved three more times, trying to stay ahead of the airstrikes. Finally they ended up at Rukban. Like almost all the refugees there, they can't go forward, and they can't go back. The U.N. supplies water and tries to distribute food, blankets and other supplies. But without being there, it doesn't know if the aid is getting to everyone. More than a month after the latest food distribution ran out, it's still negotiating the next one with the Jordanian government.
SABAH JARADEEN: This green one - it means normal. This one - it means severe malnutrition.
ARRAF: At the infant feeding center on the compound, Sabah Jaradeen, a retired Jordanian Army lieutenant colonel, shows me a tape measure she uses to determine if babies are underweight. The U.N. says since it opened the clinic three months ago, it's seen 16 infants so malnourished they would have died if they hadn't have been treated.
We're taken to a checkpoint for our only glimpse of the camp. But it's still more than a mile away, and it's barely visible. The Jordanian commander in charge of the border, General Barakat al-Aqeel, says although 90 percent of the refugees in Rukban are ordinary civilians, ISIS has infiltrated the camp.
BARAKAT AL-AQEEL: (Through interpreter) We're always expecting the worst regarding anyone who could be carrying explosives to blow up our soldiers.
ARRAF: This checkpoint with sand-filled barriers and barbed wire is the only point where refugees can come to seek help.
(SOUNDBITE OF SIRENS)
ARRAF: That's the sound of an ambulance that is just carrying an ill man who has been brought from the camp back to the clinic. He was loaded onto a stretcher here, but his family isn't allowed to come. I can see them standing about 300 feet away under barbed wire near HESCO barriers, but they're not allowed to approach. And we're not allowed to go any further.
UNIDENTIFIED SOLDIER: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: Get back, a soldier tells us as a group of refugees walk towards us. We stop, and he allows them to come talk to us for a minute.
JLILLA: (Foreign language spoken).
ARRAF: There's a group of children. Their aunt, Jlilla, tells me they're trying to reunite the children with their parents who were allowed into Jordan for medical treatment more than a year ago. The children have only a few minutes to tell their story to journalists who only know their camp from satellite images, and then they're quickly led back to join the tens of thousands of unseen refugees on the far edge of the Syrian conflict. Jane Arraf, NPR News at the Rukban border crossing on the Jordanian-Syrian border.
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