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Displaced Daraa residents in the Burayqah camp near the Golan Heights in July. Photo courtesy of Ahmad Al-Msalam.
AMMAN: After being displaced for a second time by the Syrian government’s recent advances on rebel-held territories in Syria’s southwestern Daraa province, Jamal al-Ahmad and his family of five make do with a tarp for shelter each night in the rocky foothills bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“The hardest thing is the lack of water,” he told Syria Direct via WhatsApp, adding that local supplies of food and water are depleting as more displaced people join the makeshift encampments scattered across the border region.
Thousands of families like al-Ahmad’s have fled deeper into rebel-held territory bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights since last Friday following a Russian-negotiated reconciliation settlement to return control of the majority of the country’s rebel-held southwest to the Syrian government.
With borders closed and uncertainty looming about how the reconciliation deal will be implemented, Daraa province residents like al-Ahmad must now make fraught decisions about whether to remain displaced, or return home to an uncertain future.
Friday’s reconciliation agreement came three weeks into a massive Syrian government-led air and ground assault on rebel-held territory in southwestern Syria’s Daraa that caused the largest and fastest displacement in the history of the Syrian conflict, according to the United Nations.
Since the beginning of the Syrian government’s Daraa offensive in mid-June, some 325,000 civilians have fled their homes throughout Daraa province. Until last week, more than 59,000 people were gathered along the Syrian-Jordanian border.
But after the Russian-rebel reconciliation deal was reached on Friday and government forces regained control of the Naseeb border crossing with Jordan, virtually all of the displaced people sheltering there left. By Monday, barely 200 civilians remained, according to UN Humanitarian Coordinator Anders Pedersen.
At least 28,000 of those originally displaced are estimated to have returned to more than a dozen towns and villages in eastern Daraa province to await the beginning of the reconciliation process. However, thousands of others who are unwilling to return to areas that were badly destroyed by fighting or surrendered to the government through reconciliation fled once more, seeking shelter deeper in opposition-held territory.
Imad Bateen, vice president of Daraa’s opposition-run provincial council, estimates more than 6,000 displaced families have already arrived at the rebel-held border strip between Syria and the Golan Heights since Friday.
‘We need a place to shelter us’
For Jamal al-Ahmad, who lost his brother and several relatives to pro-government forces in recent years, returning to his house in the western Daraa town of Jiza was simply not an option.
“How can we forget their blood and reconcile with their killer?” he said.
Syrians returning to their homes in the eastern Daraa countryside on Saturday. Photo by Mohamad Abazeed/AFP.
So, after first hearing about a rebel agreement with Damascus on Friday night, al-Ahmad bundled a few light mattresses and a tarp into the back of a worn-down taxi that he obtained with the help of some friends, and set off with his mother, wife and two children away from their temporary refuge at the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Driving by night, al-Ahmad carefully navigated the only remaining road that connects newly government-held eastern Daraa province with rebel-held territory, driving west towards the Golan Heights.
“It is a winding road,” he said, “with many ups and downs… [that’s] only three meters wide.”
But al-Ahmad and his family are facing living conditions very similar to those they left behind at the Syrian-Jordanian border.
“We need a place to shelter us from the cold at night, and the daytime heat,” said al-Ahmad.
Even before the arrival of the six thousand newly displaced families, an estimated 189,000 displaced people from across Daraa province were already living in a series of makeshift tent settlements bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. More than 70 percent of the camps lack adequate shelter and are routinely exposed to harsh weather conditions. Flooding is common in the winter.
Displaced Daraa resident Abu Omar al-Hariri, from the eastern Daraa town of Busra al-Harir, also fled to the border area out of fear for his sons. He used a pseudonym for security reasons.
“If we returned to Busra al-Harir,” he feared “the government would arrest them, take them to the army or execute them.”
Now at the border, with nowhere further to flee should pro-government forces advance, al-Hariri is unsure about what to do next.
“We would support a decision to evacuate us to Idlib,” he said, “and my family would be the first ones to leave.”
“[But] if the regime advances further, the only solution left in front of us displaced is to break through the border and enter Israel, no matter the cost,” al-Hariri added.
‘No need to remain homeless’
But not everyone is fleeing. While thousands of people have fled to opposition-held Quneitra, an estimated 28,000 instead chose to return to their homes in the newly government-held eastern Daraa countryside, according to the UK-based pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
As well as the rebel surrender of all heavy arms, Friday’s reconciliation agreement offered residents the choice between “settling their status” with pro-government authorities or evacuating to rebel-held areas in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province. In turn, the Syrian government would withdraw their forces from the area and allow reconciled rebels to form local security forces alongside Russian military police in the area, Syria Direct reported on Tuesday.
Osama al-Hiraki, 43, who requested a pseudonym because he wishes to “reconcile without any problems,” decided to return home to the now government-held east Daraa town of al-Hirak after hearing about Friday’s agreement.
With no fear of army conscription for himself or his two sons, who are still young, al-Hiraki believed that “there was no longer any need to remain homeless.”
Another returnee, 27-year-old Khaled a-Shami, said the decision to return to his hometown of Busra a-Sham was “difficult.” A-Shami, who requested anonymity for security reasons, remains fearful of army conscription and detention. Still, he maintains that this is “for the best of the family”.
“We are tired after 10 days of instability,” he added.
A-Shami’s family’s decision to return was based on the guarantees set out in Friday’s agreement that the government would withdraw their forces from the area.
However, it remains unclear how exactly that agreement will unfold. According to one local rebel commander Syria Direct spoke with on Tuesday, withdrawals have yet to go ahead.
Planned evacuations to rebel-held Idlib that were scheduled to begin last Sunday have also been put on hold due to “an exchange of fire” between rebels and regime forces, UK-based news site The New Arab reported on Sunday, citing a rebel spokesperson.
For now, throughout Daraa and Quneitra, sleeping under tarps or in bombed-out towns, displaced people and returnees alike can do little else but wait.
“We are still waiting to learn our fate,” a-Shami told Syria Direct from his house in Busra a-Sham, where he says he hasn’t heard of any committee formed yet to “implement the terms of reconciliation.”
“We don’t know whose hands our fate lies in,” he said.