On June 28, a missile fell on Saeed’s neighbor’s house in the town of El Taebah, in Syria’s Dera’a governorate. The explosion not only turned the house to rubble, it destroyed half of Saeed’s house—his children’s bedroom and the living room.
“My neighbors had fled just an hour before. I don’t know if they would have been alive if they had stayed,” Saeed tells me in a Skype call (he asked that I only use his first name, to protect his safety).
“When I calmed down from the shock and processed what had just happened, I decided to leave. I packed whatever we could fit into our car, and myself, my wife, and my six children drove south, hoping we could cross to Jordan the same day,” Saeed recalls.
The Dera’a region was facing the worst military attack since the rebels took over in 2012. By the beginning of July, dozens of people had been killed, including children. Most health and educational facilities in Dera’a, which is in the southern part of Syria bordering Jordan, were either closed or entirely out of service due to the widespread airstrikes.
According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the assault had forced more than 271,800 people to flee their homes as of July 2: 164,000 moved toward Quneitra, near the Israeli border, and 60,000 others ended up, like Saeed and his family, at the Jordanian border, hoping they would be allowed to cross (eventually, well over 300,000 fled). But officials in Jordan, which already hosts more than 650,000 Syrian refugees, will not allow any more to enter because of security and economic factors.
“But people had hoped this might change and the borders might open for children and women, at least,” Saeed tells me.
“We arrived midday at the free zone, near Naseeb’s crossing [a border crossing near the Syrian town of Naseeb, where there used to be a duty-free commercial zone]. The area was not prepared to host thousands of people. There was no bread, no clean drinking water, and it’s dry land, with no shade. We sat under makeshift tents, which we built with sheets we brought from home,” Saeed recalls.
“Two days later my children started to get sick. The combination of the extreme heat—it reaches above 110 degrees—and the lack of drinking water was deadly. My youngest daughter—she is 4 years old—had a fever and reached a point where she vomited everything she ate. When she started to hallucinate, I held her in my arms, pushed my way closer to the fence, and asked the Jordanian soldiers behind the barbed-wire to let her in. If they are scared of me, it’s fine, just take her in alone, she might die. I begged them.”
His pleas fell on deaf ears. “It’s only for the badly wounded,” they responded, without even looking at her. In fact, their statement was not wholly true: Many wounded were bleeding right next to the fence, but they were not allowed to cross either.
“I saw a woman, she was missing part of her arm, she was bleeding and her arm was wrapped in a towel,” Saeed says. “She kept begging and bleeding till she passed out. Then they carried her to the Jordanian side. I don’t know if she is still alive or not.”
Injuries and heat were not the only problems that faced displaced Syrians on the border. According to OCHA, people also died from scorpion bites, dehydration, and diseases contracted from contaminated water. And no medication was provided.
“On their local news, Jordanian officials said they were distributing food and aid to us, but they didn’t say how. They were throwing cans of tuna and sardines on those displaced people who were closest to the fence. People who were desperate for food would race and push against the wire. In my 39 years, I have never felt such humiliation.”
“My children’s health became worse everyday. So I started to consider going back,” Saeed tells me. “I would rather die under bombardment in my house than to be humiliated on borders.”
On July 4, a truce between the Syrian government and the rebels was brokered by Russia. The Syrian government issued a statement asking people to leave the borders and go back home, claiming it will not arrest anyone.
Saeed, like thousands of other Syrians on the Jordanian border, drove back with his family to his half-standing house, which he’d fled nine days earlier. Today, of the 60,000, only some 150–200 Syrians remain on the Jordanian border.
“Yes, I came back because we were left with two options: either to die of dehydration on the Jordanian border, or to admit that we have lost this war and accept life under a government which Dera’a sparked an uprising against.”
Now outlets like Al Mayadeen, a pro-Hezbollah Lebanese TV channel, and Syrian state TV are celebrating victory, with special coverage from the Naseeb border crossing. Analysts talk about how government buses will be carrying recently displaced people from the Jordanian border back to their villages, which are now controlled by the Syrian government.
They claim these displaced people were forced out of their villages because the rebels terrorized them—not because of the government’s recent assault. And now they are back, because the rebels agreed to a truce. There’s no mention of the horrifying conditions on the Jordanian border—or the relentless Syrian government bombing of cities and towns across Dera’a that had forced them to flee.
Now Dera’a, which was one of the first cities to rebel against the government, is showing its loyalty to President Bashar al-Assad—at gunpoint. The Syrian government has indeed won. It has won the war against its own people.