JABER BORDER CROSSING, between Jordan and Syria — There is nothing at this checkpoint to indicate that only a few miles away, in the city of Dara, a war is going on — and that some 130,000 desperate Syrians have entered Jordan via this and other crossings over the last year, several thousand in the past two weeks alone. The border is active — trucks full of goods, private vehicles, and even buses are entering and exiting Syria, which is also the shortest route from Jordan to Lebanon and Turkey.
But gathered beneath a sign that says “Restaurant” — there is no restaurant, just a small, poorly lit grocery store — are several Syrian refugees. Muhamad, who escaped a week ago, is eager to describe what he saw inside Syria over the past weeks.
Dressed in a brown polo shirt, blue jeans and sandals, with gentle brown eyes and a broadening midriff, Muhamad is a peasant from a town near Dara, 10 or so miles away. He snuck across the border with his wife and children in the middle of the night through the mountains, braving possible sniper fire from Syrian soldiers.
From Muhamad and other refugees here, we learn that there are two ways to cross the border: at night, through the wilderness, risking one’s life, or during the day, by bribing Syrian border officials. The refugees do have some help: At night, the Syrian Free Army sometimes protects groups of refugees as they approach the border, and almost always at night, too, the Jordanian army is there to welcome and protect them and guide them to a refugee camp as soon as they are within sight.
Muhamad, who is not allowed to leave the refugee camp without a Jordanian writ of permission, is now awaiting his sister. She is supposed to cross the border checkpoint in “five minutes” — bribing her way through. While he waits, he tells us about what drove him to escape his country only now, after 16 months of fighting.
“For a very long time the army was in my town. Then they left, but recently they returned. And when they came back the soldiers were shooting people in the streets without mercy. Twenty days ago my house was bombed by the Syrian army. After that, we left.”
Not everyone manages to get out. One of his friends in the refugee camp, a soldier in the regime, defected 17 days ago with most of his platoon mates, says Muhamad. They were spotted by the regime’s soldiers near the border and shot at. Out of 20, only five made it to Jordan.
Muhamad is tense; every few minutes he calls from his cellphone to check his sister’s progress through the various hurdles of the border crossing. When we inquire about the price the Syrian border police exact in “bakshish” for the privilege of passage, he tells us that the ticket to freedom costs a hefty 500 Jordanian dinar — some $750. “The Jordanians,” he adds, “are kinder. They let people in for free.”
Sometimes, the price is higher — too high. Hisham, another refugee in the small group around us, says his mother-in-law had to backtrack when she arrived at the border several weeks ago. She was asked for 100,000 Syrian liras, about $1,300, a sum she could not afford.
Also a native of Dara, Hisham escaped a year ago. Fake Ray-Ban sunglasses shade his eyes from the unforgiving sun as he chain-smokes Marlboro Reds and tells us his story. “When the uprisings started,” he says, “Syrian Army soldiers targeted the houses of known activists in our town. They entered the homes, and raped wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. That was done in order to scare people from protesting.”
Hisham, who is in touch with family and friends still in Dara, says that after the first few weeks of military occupation, Assad’s soldiers started to lose their confidence; they no longer felt safe in the streets. That’s why they started to bomb the city from the air. His house, his car and the mini-market he owned were all bombed by the military, he says. Though it’s been a year since he and his family reached the relative safety of Jordan, the memory of the bombings is with them; his children still shiver in fear whenever a plane crosses the skies.
Hisham speaks with conviction about the politics surrounding the uprising. He argues that, however it began, it has now become a religious war — Shiite versus Sunni.
Other refugees sitting nearby agree. “We are being targeted only because we are Sunni, and all Sunni are being targeted,” says one.
Although the Alawites — President Bashar Assad’s minority sect — are mentioned, the refugees we meet overwhelmingly see the fighting now through the prism of the Shiite-Sunni rift, the oldest conflict within Islam.
Hisham says Iran now has 15,000 soldiers in Syria, bolstering Assad’s campaign of terror. Fighters from the Hezbollah are also deeply involved in the battle against demonstrators and against the opposition forces, he says. “One of my friends, part of a rebel group, captured a group of 11 Lebanese Hezbollah soldiers,” he tells us.
Jordan, the refugees say, is not completely safe: Hisham, Muhamad and the other refugees tell us that the Syrian mukhabarat, or military intelligence units, are after them even here. “A few days ago, mukhabarat agents, some of whom have been in Jordan since way before the uprising, tried to poison the water supply in one of the camps,” Muhamad says, as the others vocalize their agreement. “Luckily, they were caught by the Jordanian authorities before they succeeded.”
When we ask about the trucks and buses crossing into Syria, we are told that this is the only practical route for commercial transport from Jordan to Turkey and Lebanon. That may explain the trucks, we persist, but what about the buses?
Some of the refugees, a small but significant percentage, it turns out, are returning to Syria. They do not have any means to support themselves in Jordan. “Only yesterday” Hisham tells us, “300 families crossed the border back to Syria; they had no other option.”
A small, rather excited crowd has gathered around us by now, and we begin to feel a touch uncomfortable; we don’t want to attract the attention of the Jordanian authorities. Hisham raises his voice so that everyone can hear him and says, to us and anyone else who cares to listen, by way of a farewell: “The whole world knows that the people of Syria are being slaughtered, but nobody is willing to act. And even so, the days of Assad’s regime are over. It is only a matter of time until he falls. A month at the most.”
Muhamad is on the phone with his sister again as we head back to our taxi, preparing to leave. He walks with us to the vehicle and leans over with a last message for us to spread. “A lot of people are dying because they are wounded, and there are no doctors or nurses to treat their wounds.”
“What is going on with your sister?” we ask.
“She is very close,” he replies, smiling, and repeats what he has been saying for the past hour. “Five minutes. Five minutes.”