Escaping Syria in the dead of night: UNHCR chief visits Jordan border

News Stories, 14 March 2013

© UNHCR/Jared J.Kohler
A group of Syrian refugees cross at night into Jordan. They make their way by foot from the Syrian governorate of Daá'ra carrying what they can. It's a risky journey.

SYRIA-JORDAN BORDER, March 14 (UNHCR) The line of refugees shuffles through the starry night. They carry bags on their heads and drag luggage while trying to hold onto their children. The moonlight guides them as they walk among the sand and rocks. Their silhouettes are barely visible on the horizon.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, a witness to the night crossing, trudges up a hill in the dark to greet the group. It is 10:00p.m. and this party of about 100 has just made the dangerous crossing from Syria to Jordan.

But still there is a feeling of fear, which is magnified when a mortar round explodes nearby. The pace increases. A Jordanian soldier holds a crying baby in his arms. An old man and his wife are quickly ushered into an ambulance.

A woman weeps as she walks. "God what have I done that you have punished me?" she says. But others have no patience with her cries. "Just keep walking," one man tells her. "Leave God out of it."

The Jordanian military monitors 145 border points, ushering in an average of 2,000 Syrians a day. The arrivals scurry to safety, grateful, but resigned to their new life as refugees. Brigadier General Hussein Zyoud, commander of Jordan's border forces, tells Guterres that at least 30 wounded are brought across every night. Many are shot at as they make their escape. "We tell them, you are now among the Jordanian army. That relieves them," the officer notes.

On this night, the refugees reach the top of a dirt hill where they can finally rest. Some huddle in groups in a large tented area; others sit in the open air. One extended family of 40 has travelled together. The men speak to each other while the women attend to their children. One little girl, no more than a month old, is looked after by her nine-year-old brother.

Schoolteacher Mohammed has just crossed from his home in the border province of Dara'a, but he is still coming to terms with what he has endured. The 43-year-old's hands shake as he smokes a cigarette.

For two months he had tried to gather the courage to make the crossing. Instead he fled from one village to another within Syria. But then two days ago a missile landed near him, shattering the windows of houses and cars . It terrified him.

Mohammed says there are many more like him in Dara'a people who are terrified by the conflict and terrified to make the crossing. "They're moving from village to village. If things escalate more and more they will have nowhere to run. Then they too will cross the border to Jordan," he says.

"This is a terrible tragedy," Guterres says as he reaches the tent where the refugees gathered to rest. "I don't think the world fully realizes what it means to have a country systematically destroyed."

The injured begin to arrive. Doctors from the Jordanian army treat them. One man weeps hysterically, vomiting onto the fine sand while doctors cover him with blankets. His body has been overcome with fear.

Another man arrives on a stretcher covered in a beige blanket. He is 73 years old. A doctor takes off his dressings to reveal the holes in his pale body. There is a wound in his stomach, a wound in his arm and anther in his buttocks. "Do you have anything else in your stomach?" the doctor asks.

The man was outside his home in Dara'a when he felt a pain in his arm. His children saw the bullet wound and told him to run into the house. Then the second bullet hit him in the belly and finally the third. His family took him to a local hospital where he was treated. But the doctors told him that he had to cross the border before sunrise. They said that combatants come into the hospital looking for wounded in the mornings. And it is unclear what happens to the patients they take with them.

The man groans into the night as the doctors prepare to take him to a nearby hospital. "Do you know where you are?" someone asks. "Yes, thank God, I'm in Jordan," he responds.

Guterres had earlier in the day appealed to donor nations to create extraordinary funds to help Syrian victims and host countries like Jordan. "There is no way we can continue to really help these people with the funding we have right now."

One Foreign Ministry official told Guterres in Amman, "I don't see us building camps fast enough to receive the people coming in, and I don't see our infrastructure able to absorb these numbers." Jordan says it is now hosts more than 450,000 Syrian refugees. The majority live in towns and cities. Some 100,000 live in Za'atri, but further camps are planned and UNHCR is working with the government on contingency plans in case the situation deteriorates even more dramatically.

Guterres has warned that the number of refugees, currently put at more than 1.1 million, could reach 3 million by the end of the year.

By Greg Beals and Melissa Fleming on the Syria-Jordan Border

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Flight by Night: Syrian Refugees Risk the Crossing to Jordan in the Dark

Every night, hundreds of refugees flee from Syria via dozens of unofficial border crossing points and seek shelter in neighbouring Jordan. Many feel safer crossing in the dark, but it remains a risky journey by day or night. They arrive exhausted, scared and traumatized, but happy to be in the welcoming embrace of Jordan and away from the conflict in their country. Some arrive with bad injuries, many carry belongings. A large proportion are women and children. Observers at the border at night see these eerie silhouettes approaching out of the dark. Earlier this week, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was among these observers. He and his UNHCR colleagues were moved by what they saw and heard at the border and earlier in Za'atri refugee camp, where arrivals are taken by the Jordanian military. The majority of the Syrian refugees move to Jordan's cities, towns and villages. Guterres has urged donors to set up special funds for the Syria crisis, warning of disaster if more humanitarian funding is not forthcoming soon. Photographer Jared Kohler was at the border when Guterres visited. These are his images.

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