Between hellfire and a closed border

An Al-Jumhuriya colleague in south Syria currently fleeing Russian and Assad regime bombing tells of her ordeal over the past few days, and the bleak prospects for the coming ones.

[Editor’s note: This article was originally published in Arabic on 29 June, 2018.]

A war of this scale in Syria’s southern Hawran region—the volcanic plateau extending from the edge of Damascus through Quneitra, Suwayda, and Daraa Provinces into northwest Jordan—was not expected by many. The ongoing talk since mid-February about an imminent battle in Daraa had been vague, with international and regional guarantors long determined to give the impression that the fate of Hawran would be different to other regions, and that high-level settlements would spare this revolutionary plain the war of extermination and displacement that had ravaged other parts of the country. Evidently, however, the regime in Damascus is unwilling or unable to desist from the practices that have become the hallmarks of its warfare.

Warda al-Yassin, who has written several articles for Al-Jumhuriya in Arabic (and this one translated into English) about the situation in Daraa lately, was unable to write this time, as she was on the move, seeking refuge in the direction of the Jordanian border after everything around her began to transform into hellfire. “Warda al-Yassin” is the pseudonym of a woman from Hawran, who was hoping the near future might bring her a better life. The Russian air force had other ideas.

When I speak to Warda in writing over the Messenger application, the first thing she says is that she’s “very sad”—not angry, nor afraid, but sad. At the moment I was able to get in touch with her, there was an unconfirmed report circulating among her fellow refugees that the city of al-Hirak; the “icon of the revolution,” as the people of Hawran call it; had fallen to regime forces after hundreds of air strikes had reduced it to rubble.

Warda had written only a few months ago about the return of life to al-Hirak, where she had resided until the recent military campaign began. She says she left the city along with most residents when the bombardment of it escalated approximately a week ago. She hadn’t expected the scale of the campaign to be so large, believing along with most of those who left with her that she would soon return. From al-Hirak, she first went south to Saida, leaving the latter yesterday with another group after the battle turned into a slaughter with the entry of the Russian air force, the horizon ablaze in all directions.

Warda says she left Saida out of fear of the severe bombardment, and of the prospect of regime forces advancing. The only possible direction was toward the Jordanian borders that are now entirely sealed, after Jordanian officials declared their country would not host a single additional Syrian refugee, adding that if the UN wished to aid any newly displaced Syrians, it would have to do so on Syrian soil.

Syrian regime media outlets talk of available passages into regime-held areas, and it seems there are families who have indeed opted for this, being transferred immediately thereafter to camps. According to Warda, this is a possibility for those certain of not being wanted by the regime, or without family members wanted for opposition activity of any kind, but not for anyone else while the regime continues to torture detainees to death. The idea of gathering the forcibly displaced in camps is enough by itself to make an exit via the regime’s crossings unwelcome to many.

With her companions, Warda reached an area near the Jordanian border, close to the town of Naseeb at the southern tip of Daraa Province. She describes the place in which she’s now residing with several families as “a small house made of cinder blocks, with a tin roof, originally used by farmers during the olive harvest season. Its size is around forty square meters, with a small bathroom, and a water well in front of it.”

This small agricultural house is not the only one on the site, but is surrounding by numerous similar ones, all of them now filled with displaced people. It’s located on a small hill overlooking the so-called “war route” to the north, and, to the south, the plains partitioned by the Jordanian border, which is followed immediately by the village of Jaber, and then the city of Mafraq. Warda says she can’t quite see the barbed wire with the naked eye from where she is, but everyone knows the nearby border is crammed with surveillance cameras and Jordanian army posts, and so nobody even contemplates moving closer. Also in those plains lies the border crossing for which the regime fought so desperately to regain last year without success; the Naseeb crossing, said to be one of the most intractable points of contention in the negotiations going on behind closed doors regarding the fate of the south.

The nearby “war route” is the sole road connecting Daraa’s eastern and western countrysides (Warda wrote an article about it in January). It is the lifeline for those parts of Daraa’s countryside outside regime control, currently being crossed by hundreds of cars carrying people from the east to the west and on to Quneitra.

It occurs to me Warda’s cell phone battery may drain, so I tell her we should end the chat in case she needs the remaining power, but she replies that the people brought portable power banks and solar power panels with them. Everybody where she is takes care of themselves by themselves, with no aid organizations or assistance coming from the other side of the border. Thousands of internally displaced persons have been left stranded along the length of the Jordanian border.

From their hill, the displaced have a clear view of the fighter jets and helicopters as they fire off their missiles and barrel bombs, just as they hear well the sounds of the raids and clashes and shelling exchanges, especially on the nearby Daraa City fronts. The factions there are fighting the regime for their lives, for if the latter succeeds in advancing toward the Jordanian border, it will have severed the eastern countryside from its western counterpart, and bisected the war route.

Warda says she and her friends think of heading west, through Daraa Province into the Quneitra countryside near the border with the occupied Golan Heights, where thousands of the displaced have already gone, believing the fighter jets won’t strike near the Israeli soldiers in the UN-supervised disengagement zone. Minutes later comes the news that aircraft bombed the village of al-Rafeed near Quneitra, and they abandon the idea, which had come to them after they ascertained the Jordanian authorities would neither open the borders nor provide any help whatsoever.

Yesterday evening, Jordanian activists launched an online campaign with the slogan “Open the borders,” calling on their government to welcome Syrian refugees, to no avail so far. After that, unverified reports spoke of negotiations and a twelve-hour ceasefire, which it quickly became clear Russia and its allies had no intention of honoring, while the same reports said Moscow refused anything less than the unconditional surrender of Hawran to regime forces.

The civilians in Daraa ask many questions, directed not at the regime and Russia, of course, but rather at the armed opposition factions; questions about the media blackout regarding the course of the battle, and the truth about the situation and the covert negotiations carried out—and perhaps still being carried out—and the possible settlements about which civilians know nothing, even though it is they who will pay the price for them. This opacity and haphazardness, says Warda, has raised question marks about the factions, with many of Hawran’s people believing there are heavy weapons left unused in their depots, and that behind the official statements about steadfastness and victory are tacit agreements and understandings of a different nature.

Staffan de Mistura, the UN’s Special Envoy for Syria, says coldly that the Eastern Ghouta scenario is about to be repeated in Daraa, which he regrets as it complicates the work of his constitutional council. Russia says it won’t withdraw from the de-escalation agreement in the south, while its planes are busy obliterating lives and demolishing hospitals. The Jordanian government says it’s carried out its humanitarian duties to the fullest extent, at the same time as saying it won’t provide aid to one more Syrian. This is the world faced by the people of Hawran today, some of whom still hold out hope; “hope,” as Warda put it at the end of her account, “to live long enough to tell the story.”


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