Dozens of families ‘trapped’ in no-man’s land along Jordan border following government advances in Daraa

Displaced Syrians place tents near the Jordanian border on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Abu Saeed.

In a barren patch of land between Syria’s southwestern Daraa province and Jordan, dozens of displaced Syrian families have set up camp.

Basic supplies are scarce, illness has spread and improvised tents made from plastic bags and tarps offer no respite from the summer sun—as well as the harsh cold at night.

But for the estimated 150 people taking shelter there, options to leave are limited.

“I can’t return to live under the regime,” says Abu Saeed, a citizen journalist from Daraa’s eastern countryside who asked that his real name be withheld for fear of government reprisals.

“I worked in the media, and the regime considers holding a camera a greater crime than holding a weapon,” he tells Syria Direct’s Waleed a-Noufal.

Abu Saeed was one of tens of thousands of Daraa residents who fled to the border late last month as pro-government forces launched a wide-scale offensive on rebel-held southwestern Syria. They settled in and around the so-called ‘Free Zone’—a commercial pocket where Syrians and Jordanians exchanged goods before the war.

When pro-government forces later seized the nearby Naseeb crossing—which remains closed to Syrian civilians—almost all of the displaced people left the border region, either for recently recaptured government-held towns or what remained of opposition territory to the west.

About 35 families, including Abu Saeed’s, went in the opposite direction, inching closer to the fence that demarcates the beginning of Jordanian territory. Conditions there might be dire, but the proximity to the border means surrounding government forces are unlikely to approach.

On Wednesday, however, Abu Saeed says Jordanian border guards told the group of displaced people that they wouldn’t be able to remain. Abu Saeed is more uncertain than ever of his family’s options.

“Even if [the regime] lets us return, they’ll take revenge later on.”

“And where should I go?” he asks. “Warplanes destroyed my home.”

Q: How did you first end up being displaced to the Free Zone at the Jordanian-Syrian border?

I arrived at the border strip—the Free Zone specifically—about 20 days ago. At the time, there were more than 100,000 civilians inside the Free Zone. They all fled from the Russian and Syrian killing machine, which targeted our homes and left our villages completely destroyed.

[Ed.: The UN had previously stated that around 60,000 displaced people sought refuge near the Jordanian border in early July.]

I came to the Free Zone with my family, and we built a tent from tarps and plastic bags. Of course it didn’t protect us, not from the summer heat by day or the piercing cold by night, and not from snakes and scorpions either.

Makeshift tents along the Syrian-Jordanian border on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of Abu Saeed.

We came here because it’s far away from the bombing, and it’s considered relatively safe. We didn’t think the regime would advance to the border so quickly and that we’d become trapped.

Q: Why didn’t you leave the border area with the rest of the people who were brought back to the eastern countryside in recent days?

About 10 days ago, we were surprised that the regime had arrived at the perimeter of the Free Zone, accompanied by Russian [military] police. They entered the Free Zone and began to curse people and hit them, and they took the tents, the canned food, sugar, tea and the clothes. They took everything, to prevent people from staying and to force them to leave in buses towards the eastern countryside.

My family and I just took some of the essentials that we could carry and fled from the Free Zone towards the Jordanian border strip. Now we’re just 20 meters away from the border fence. We’re closer to the fence than to the Free Zone and the Syrian border.

We left behind our canned goods, sugar, tea, clothing and medications, and fled to the border with just a few belongings.  

This regime and its fighters are criminals. They have no morals and can’t be trusted. When they arrived, they were stealing and cursing and hitting people. I can’t trust them, and I can’t return to live under the regime.

We’re about 35 families who were able to flee—some 150 people, most of them women and children.

Q: What are living conditions along the border actually like?

Conditions are extremely difficult. Jordan brought in water tanks for us, and fills them every few days. The water situation today is good, but to a point. Seven days ago, Jordan brought in sterilizer for the tanks, so now the water is safe to drink.

Every two or three days, food baskets and canned foods are distributed from the Jordanian side via the border fence.

But we haven’t received any bread for the past week. [Bread] was coming in from Jordan before, but it still wasn’t enough.

Most of the people here are women and children. Everyone is suffering from diarrhea, sunburns, vomiting, abdominal pain and headaches—all of it from the extreme temperatures in this desert region. Those illnesses won’t go away as long as we’re out here.

We go to the medical point within Jordanian territory for treatment and then we’re sent back immediately. But we haven’t been fully cured.

I went [to the medical point] twice because I was suffering from diarrhea, and I took some medication. I’m still sick though.

The weather is hot by day and cold at night. And the bigger issue is that there are no toilets or bathrooms. We’ve put together a small tent made out of blankets and bags, so that there can be a covered toilet for the women and children.

There’s also no gasoline or wood for cooking, so we’re burning plastic to heat up the food.

Q: Have you been in contact with authorities on either side of the border? Do you have any plans to leave?

Until now, we don’t know what our fate will be—especially since the Jordanian border [guards] notified us yesterday that we need to leave the area, that we can’t stay. They gave us until Sunday. I don’t know if Jordan will pressure or force us to leave, but we’re definitely all scared of the regime and its militias.

Regime forces are stationed at the perimeter of the Free Zone and the Syrian border, and if we decided to leave, we would have to pass through their checkpoints. Maybe they would let us return [home], but personally I don’t trust the regime at all. I worked in the media, and the regime considers holding a camera a greater crime than holding a weapon.

Even if they let us return to our homes, they’ll take revenge later on, when they’ve secured [total] control.  

And where should I go? The warplanes destroyed my home, and nothing remains. Where am I supposed to live?

If they force us to leave, I’ll choose displacement to the north. I won’t remain at the mercy of these vicious militias.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting. Follow Waleed on Twitter: @walid_ALnofal.

Avery Edelman

Avery Edelman graduated from Tufts University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in Arabic and International Relations. Follow Avery on Twitter: @averyedelman.