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Government offensive in Daraa sends tens of thousands fleeing to border areas as humanitarian crisis looms

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians streamed towards makeshift camps and shelters […]

AMMAN: Thousands of civilians streamed towards makeshift camps and shelters along Syria’s southwestern border on Wednesday, local sources said, as Damascus and its allies intensified a ground offensive and aerial bombardment campaign against opposition forces there.

A reported surge in displacement grew throughout Wednesday as government-led forces bombarded towns and cities in the opposition-held western countryside of the Syria’s southwestern Daraa province.

Lines of vehicles loaded high with mattresses and blankets streamed out of towns across the region Wednesday in videos and images posted online by pro-opposition media outlets, as waves of local residents fled intense bombardment.  

At least 45,000 civilians have fled their homes and sought shelter along the Syrian border with Jordan and the Golan Heights since a pro-government campaign against rebels in southwestern Syria began in mid-June, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated on Tuesday.

Displaced civilians flee violence in rebel-held Daraa province on June 26. Photo by AFP/Mohamad Abazeed.

However, Emad Batin, the vice president of the opposition’s Daraa Provincial Council, told Syria Direct that local officials estimated “more than 120,000” of the province’s residents had fled their homes by Wednesday afternoon. Syria Direct could not independently confirm Batin’s estimate.

“Many families are now homeless,” Batin said on Wednesday, adding that council officials were “conducting a census” of displaced residents and working to establish camps amid a lack of shelter.

“There is no place to go, we left our village in great haste without taking any clothes or food,” said Um Khalid, a 30-year-old housewife who fled the Daraa town of Alma for  the nearby town of a-Giza this week. There, she and her four children found temporary shelter in a relative’s home alongside 15 other family members.

“There is no stability and at any moment we may have to move again even closer to the border with Jordan,” Um Khalid said.

Hours after Um Khalid spoke with Syria Direct, a-Giza came under bombardment from pro-government aircraft, with warplanes bombing a local field hospital out of service, a Daraa-based citizen journalist reported via Twitter.

Displaced civilians sheltering in temporary homes and community centers around the periphery of Daraa province told Syria Direct they were struggling to secure food, shelter and potable water.

A child helps his family construct a shelter near the border in Daraa on June 27. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Center.

“I’m staying with my family in something like a tent that I made from simple materials, wood and blankets,” displaced resident Ibrahim al-Jarnaz told Syria Direct from the town of Summaghiyat, near the Jordanian border. “It’s not suitable for living, but we have no other option.”

Al-Jarnaz and his family fled their home in the northeast Daraa town of Busra al-Harir ten days ago, he said. Syrian government forces captured Busra al-Harir from opposition fighters on Tuesday.

While large-scale displacement is already underway in southwestern Syria, international aid organizations such as the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) warn that the coming days could be far worse for hundreds of thousands more civilians currently living near the line of fire. Approximately 750,000 people live in rebel-held areas of Daraa province.

The World Food Program (WFP) announced Tuesday that they were conducting emergency food runs across the Jordanian border and have so far delivered ready-to-eat meals to 30,000 people.

Marwa Awad, the WFP’s Syria communications director, said via email Wednesday that the organization was making humanitarian runs twice a week through Jordan’s northern Ramtha border crossing, providing the only lifeline for tens of thousands stranded on the Jordanian border. The international organization had not reached displaced residents massed on the border of the Golan Heights, she said.

“The situation is evolving and may change,” said Awad. “So long as the conflict continues to escalate, we expect more displacement to occur as people run for their lives and seek shelter in safer locations.”

While Jordan is cooperating with aid organizations to deliver food and other relief across its border with southern Syria, Jordanian officials repeatedly stated this week that the kingdom would not open its doors to civilians fleeing the violence.

Jordanian government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat on Monday pointed to the estimated 1.3 million Syrian refugees who already reside within the kingdom, insisting that the country “simply cannot receive more.”

“Fighting in Syria is squeezing people further and further south,” the Norwegian Refugee Council warned in a statement on Wednesday, urging Jordan to allow displaced Daraa residents across the border. Without a safe passage, residents “will eventually be left with nowhere else to turn,” the statement read.

In the Daraa town of al-Giza, displaced mother Um Khalid and her children wait in their relative’s cramped living room, poised to flee once again if the frontline approaches.

“We do not know what will happen to us,” displaced mother Um Khalid told Syria Direct on Wednesday. “Not knowing is what makes us suffer the most.”

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