Syria’s southernmost province of Dera’a is often referred to as the birthplace of the revolution, but for a growing number of displaced people, it’s also literally the end of the road.
The stretch of border between Dera’a and Jordan has been closed since the summer of 2013, but families from Homs, Hama, Damascus and beyond are still turning up there, trying to get away from the chaos of war in Syria. In many cases, they only reach Dera’a after exhausting their resources in a failed bid to enter Jordan through the last open crossing, much further east, at Ruwaished.
This continuous flow of new arrivals and the declining number of people able to get out has led to a build-up of people in the towns and villages near the border at Dera’a. Omar al Hariri, a Dera’a journalist with the activist-based Sham News Network, estimated there are more than 5,000 people crowded into the stretch of land that includes the border villages of Tal Shihab and Naseeb. Lama Fakih, a Syria and Lebanon researcher at Human Rights Watch agreed that there could easily be between 4,000 and 5,000 IDPs in the area, but can’t say for sure – because Human Rights Watch hasn’t had access to the area.
It isn’t the only humanitarian organisation to be effectively shut out from Dera’a. “Due to security constraints our access to Dera’a has been restricted,” said Ahmed Mohsen, an external relations officer with UNHCR’s Damascus operation. “We rely on our partners on ground to deliver the respective services and assistance.” Those partners, noted al Hariri, are mostly informal local organisations and individuals giving what they can, when they can. But it is not enough, he said.
The lack of aid organisations is verging on the catastrophic – and according to Baroness Valerie Amos, the UN’s under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, it is only getting worse.
While factions of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) run the camps, there is none of the infrastructure that well-funded humanitarian organisations provide. Instead, people are crowded into abandoned schools, disused buildings and orchards filled with make-shift tents. More arrive by the day, straining already stretched resources even more.
“We’ve got clear and consistent messages that in some parts of Dera’a people are struggling to feed themselves,” said Robert Beer, the Jordan country director for the Norwegian Refugee Council, an NGO that receives new arrivals and distributes relief items at Za’atari and Azraq refugee camps – both across the border in Jordan.
“They say it’s getting more and more difficult, that there are lots of checkpoints. There are pockets of safety, but other places will have been heavily affected and houses destroyed.”
Um Firas, a young mother from Homs in a black niqab, has been in Dera’a since the beginning of February. In January her family paid to be smuggled to the crossing at Ruwaishid, making the long journey through regime-held land in the back of a truck, “like sheep”. But there were questions about her family booklet – an identity document – and she said she, her husband and their young child were ultimately denied passage to Za’atari camp.
Not far away, 34-year-old father of two Abu Khaled, face wrapped in a red and white keffiyeh, had a similar disappointment. “We came from Reef al Sham through al Ruwaished road. They let us enter Al Sarhan square, and then they took us out because of IDs and I don't know what.” He and his family had no choice but to come to Dera’a, where they have been stuck ever since. “The borders are closed and now there is nothing.”
One of the factors compounding the desperation in Dera’a is poverty. Any bid to enter Jordan costs money, and the price is going up. “We’ve recently heard that people are paying $140 (£235) per person for transport to the border, up from $10 to15 (£ 6 to 9) not that long ago,” said Robert Beer.
Um Mohammed, a 45-year-old from Al Ghouta, near Damascus, said she sold her last item of value – an automatic washing machine – to pay smugglers to transport her and her five children to Ruwaished. “They kept on moving us from one place to another, not to mention the hunger, the cold and if a child got ill. Then we reached Al Sarhan square. I had my family booklet and a receipt for my ID, but my ID got lost in the town.” Without her ID, she was unable to convince authorities that she was indeed Syrian. “I was put in the station and I was unable to go past this point.” Like Um Firas, Abu Khaled and so many others before her, Um Mohammed and her children had nowhere left to go and precious little money to get there. Now in Dera’a for ten days, she is truly desperate: “I can’t go back to Damascus and I can’t live here. How can I reach Jordan just to sort my children?”
All along the border, displaced families spoke of feeling trapped and having nothing to do but wait until the border re-opens – if indeed it ever will. After failing to reach Jordan at Ruwaished, they have run out of options.
But for an unlucky few, there is one last way out: by ambulance. Jordan quietly provides emergency medical care to those with the most grievous injuries. Typically a local ambulance takes victims to a Dera’a field hospital for stabilisation, then transports them to the border, where they are transferred to a Jordanian ambulance and rushed to hospital for specialised care.
As I filed this article, I got a message from Dera’a: helicopters were hovering and barrels were falling. A long pause. Then another message: a 12-year-old boy had been hit. He’d lost a leg. Severed, then and there. The boy was in an ambulance within minutes, bound for the nearest field hospital and then on to the border and a Jordanian ambulance. It’s not policy to take family along: this is emergency medical care, not a pathway for refugees.
The boy crossed the border alone.
Additional reporting by Abo Bakr al Haj Ali