The village of Atorra, just two kilometers from the Syrian border, is an ordinary looking place: flat roofed blond houses with tufts of green shrubbery. It’s surrounded by farmland and many of the smaller roads are unpaved tracks. It is also the light at the end of the tunnel for 100s of refugees smuggled over the border every night. They are running for their lives with the sound of shelling and the smell of smoke just behind them.
Jordanian residents say they hear the explosions nightly as they watch their village invaded by desperate Syrian families. Supplies of food, clothes and housing are at capacity but villagers still welcome the foreigners with open arms.
Dr. Omar, who runs the Drabseh Community Center, says locals are keen to do what they can for the Syrians:
“The Levant stands together when there is a time of need like this, we feel that age-old link with the people of Syria in a way that we wouldn’t, for example, with Gulfis.”
Atorra has nearly 100 Syrian refugee families currently living in houses provided by local charities. There is a ‘safe-house’ where the most recent and most desperate are usually housed. After that, the village tries to provide apartments but many of the refugees still live in terrible conditions.
The first house we visit doesn’t have a front door as such and we struggle over the crumbling back walls and glass shards to get inside The family of five who live here arrived three weeks ago but they are still too scared to give out their names as two of their daughters are still living in Syria.
The mother tells us her house in Homs was destroyed 2 months ago by shells but her stubborn husband wouldn’t leave even then. His hearing is now seriously impaired.
“We were smuggled over the border by the FSA. We walked five days in silence while the rebels set off smoke-screen explosions to cover our tracks,” she tells us.
Food supplies in the city had almost entirely run out by the time they decided to leave and the family had been living on flour and water for weeks.
“They’re burying the dead in houses in Homs. Every ten streets there is only one family living there. It’s the smell of dead bodies that’s driving them away.”
Her 16-year-old daughter is already old beyond her years. She has dark bags under her eyes and clearly hasn’t eaten properly in weeks but she is determined to tell us about the horrors of Homs.
She is calm but defiant as she explains how one of her classmates was raped in front of her parents by the Shabiha.
All the families we spoke to knew of the infamous Shabiha but no one was quite sure exactly who they were. While some claimed they were Iranians who spoke Arabic with strange accents, others said they were Alawite Assad men. All were sure they were a consequence of sectarian fighting between Sunni and Shiaa.
Our next family is from a small village in the North called Deir al Balba. The Hamzehs came just two weeks ago and are happy to be photographed inside their new home. Mom Amina tells us why: “My daughter and all her family were killed so what do I have left to fear?”
Her husband says they no longer feel like people, stripped of their ID cards, their livelihoods and their home. He tells us that their village of 700 people was massacred although they never saw reports of it in the press.
Their son, Bilal, is desperate to get the story out, speaking so fast it’s difficult to follow him. While grieving his slaughtered sister, he still has more to add:
“My cousin was one of those killed, she was 8 months pregnant with a one-and-a-half year old baby on her lap. They killed her and her babes. They cut out her baby with knives.”
Mom, Amina, was allowed over the border by the authorities as a medical refugee because of a serious kidney condition she suffers from. She lost her daughter in the massacre and still needs dialysis every day.
As we approach the border itself the road becomes eerily quiet. Syrian watchtowers stare over the shrubbery. On the way we are met by yet more villagers mobilizing to gather supplies for the incoming refugees. Bilal Al Jararawah, president of the AlBuwayda Charity, tells us they had an influx of 1350 people just two days ago. It’s an awful lot for such a small village to cope with but residents are not complaining: they have boxes of clothes and food collected and divided already.
Our last family house is maybe the barest of all. Hamza has been here for five months after he walked from nearby Daraa with his four children.
“For me this is not a war, not even a civil war, I would call it a genocide,” he says.
His home so far has just a few thin foam mattresses but today he has his first piece of furniture: a fan, organized by local charity worker, Abu Nabil. Hamza was a wanted man in Syria and he shyly admits he was a member of the FSA. He tells us his uncle was killed by Assad’s forces while praying in a mosque.
“I want to go back but every day I hear worse and worse rumors. Friends of mine told me they are using poisonous gas on people on Daraa. It’s worse than you see on TV and we feel like the world is blind to the Syrian people,” he says.
On his cell phone he has a video of the body of a teenager graphically shown blown up by a mine. As he shows us, his 7-year-old stares over his shoulder at the screen.
Hamza apologizes to us: he can’t offer us tea because he doesn’t have any gas. This is the reality for many of the refugee families living here but they would all agree, it’s better to be sleeping soundly in poverty than back home living in fear.
By Helen Brooks and Dina Dabbous
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