On The Syrian Border, Getting Too Close Could Get You Shot
Our car pulled over along a deserted traffic circle in a small Jordanian village. An old man freshly covered in thick, wet sleet climbed into the back seat, his cold breath reeking of cigarettes.
"This is Khaled," my Syrian contact said. "He will show us to the border."
It took the better part of today to get from Amman, Jordan, to the Syrian border. A freak rain storm followed by a sudden blizzard had turned what should have been a two-hour drive into something much worse, as Jordanians seem to drive in snow as poorly as my fellow Washingtonians do. The goal had been to reach the border by mid-afternoon, but dusk was now fast approaching.
There were three others in the car: the Syrian contact; Khaled; and a younger Syrian man named Osama. We had picked him up en route to meeting Khaled. Osama was an activist who had been forced to escape into Jordan almost two months ago.
"They had already detained me twice," Osama said, continuing an earlier conversation. "The first time they held me for five months, accusing me of inciting protests and dissent."
"Was this true?" I asked.
Osama's story was tragically familiar in this part of northern Jordan, just one of thousands of refugees forced to escape southern Syria and find refuge among the local population. His house, he said, had been raided 10 times by Syrian secret police; in one incident, they beat his brothers and violently ripped the bracelets off of his three-year-old niece. The intimidation was constant, he said. A fellow activist had his house burned down.
Osama's role in the protests had been to come up with the chants they would use against the regime each day. "It was important they were good ones," he said. When asked about what he had been subjected to in prison, he replied dryly: "The usual stuff. All kinds of emotional and physical abuse. Electric shocks, beating my feet with hoses, deprivation of food and toilet facilities."
We drove parallel to the border, which was somewhere over the hillside to the right. Every few minutes I would ask how close we were. The question was beginning to irritate the others.
Osama talked more about his experiences with the Syrian regime. He had been released from prison in November, but his freedom was short-lived. When he tried to cross the border legally at a nearby checkpoint, he says, he was detained again simply because of his previous prison stint. He would spend the next two weeks in jail.
"That time I was detained by air force intelligence – they're the worst," Osama said. "I was in a solitary confinement cell, but with five other people. One of them was a 17-year-old boy who had been shot in the thigh. He didn't want treatment for it; he was afraid that if the mukhabarat knew about his wound, they would beat him there on purpose."
Osama probably would have stayed in jail for much longer than two weeks, but then suddenly his group of cellmates was split up. "The prison was overcrowded, and the [Arab League] observers were coming. They took some of them to military barracks, including the boy. I was taken to the local court house. Others stayed behind to clean the prison cells before the observers arrived."
He never saw the boy again.
"I was lucky because I was taken to court – they decided to release me," Osama said. "God knows what happened to the ones who went to the barracks. I called the boy's mother to ask if he had been released. She was shocked because she didn't even know that he had been alive this whole time."
After leaving custody for the second time, Osama decided to cross the border illegally. "I made it over the sheek," he said.
"Sheek?" I asked.
"Yes, sheek," he continued. "Any place you cross the border illegally, we call it sheek. I don't know why; maybe it is from the English word check, as in checkpoint."
The call to prayer sounded from the village mosque; somewhere behind the storm clouds, the sun had sunk below the horizon. There was just enough light in the sky to get a sense of the landscape. Our car had meandered along various backroads until we had reached what seemed to be endless orchards of olive trees. Through the trees we could easily see a dirt road along a hillside, as well as some electrical towers. To the right of the hills, the lights of a city began to sparkle.
"That road you see, and the city?" Khaled said, pointing through the olive trees. "That is Syria. The border is closer to us but you can't see it from here."
"Is the border itself a fence or a wall?" I asked.
"No, here it is just sandbags," Osama said. "Once the area had land mines but a group cleared them two years ago. So it is not too difficult to get across."
"How many people cross the border around here every day?"
"Usually 50 or 60," Khaled explained. "When you enter Jordan, you eventually have to alert local authorities. They will only let you stay if someone vouches for you. I vouched for Osama, for example. They take your papers and passport, but at least you can stay here."
"Have you vouched for many people?"
"A number of them, yes; many families stretch across both sides of the border. But not everyone makes it. Last week I was working in my orchard when I saw a group of people running towards the border. Three of them were shot dead, in the back. The others made it."
A little way up the road was a small hill, giving us a better view of the city lights in front of us.
"That's Daraa," Osama said. "It is not far at all. In fact, this is the area where my wife and children crossed the border two weeks ago."
The rain and sleet had stopped for a few minutes, so we got out of the car. Stepping into several potholes of half-frozen mud, I made it across the road into the orchard for a better view. It was such a peaceful scene: rolling hills covered in olive trees, the gleaming lights of a small city not far in the distance. It was hard to imagine that this city was one of the first to be violently suppressed in the Syrian uprising.
Back in the car, I saw a side road just ahead, jutting in the direction of Daraa and the border.
"Could we get a better view from there?" I asked.
"Yes," Khaled replied from the back seat. "But you could get shot. Remember where we are. This is close enough."
With Twitter and other social media, NPR's Andy Carvin monitored immediate, on-the-ground developments during the upheavals of the Arab Spring from Washington, D.C., through thousands of tweets and an army of followers that numbers in the tens of thousands. He's traveling through the region, meeting face-to-face with some of those activists. He's been sending us periodic updates on his journey.