With criminals and rebels helping them on their way, Syria’s army of refugees marches by night, in single file and silence, towards the Jordanian border. More than 140,000 desperate people, many of them women and children, have sought sanctuary from their neighbour since the uprising in their homeland began 13 months ago and most now face an uncertain future.
Unlike Turkey, Jordan does not have a refugee camp and new arrivals are left to fend for themselves. They escape mostly “through the fence”, too frightened to leave Syria by its official borders. For some this is because their documents were burned when the army torched their homes; for others it is because they are being hunted by the government because someone in their family is, or was, a fighter.
In Jordan most of the aid they receive comes from Islamic and Christian charities with limited resources. They get boxes of food from one group; another donates mattresses and kitchen sets. But it is not enough, and many wonder where the international NGOs are.
“They [the international aid agencies] have a lot of meetings,” said the head of one charity well known to many refugees. “But I don’t see anything on the ground. There is all this talking, and still the Syrians need beds and food and stoves.” Many live in buildings that were formerly abandoned and lack basic necessities such as water and ventilation. Some of the poorest families are living in tents made from old jute sacks.
The border town of Mafraq in Jordan now hosts 10,000 Syrian refugees, almost all from rebel neighbourhoods of the city of Homs, where the fighting has left many of the women widowed.
“Everyone from Homs is either dead or escaped,” said Ghada, a resident of the city who came to Mafraq four months ago. “Even the birds left.”
This is her story, and those of some of the other courageous widows of Homs.
Ghada, 40, from al-Bayda, Homs. Mother of five girls and two boys:
My husband was with the rebels. He was working as an ambulance driver, collecting people who had been shot by snipers and taking them to the field hospitals. Then he was killed by a sniper. He was taking a pregnant woman to hospital. That was 10 weeks ago.
He was a volunteer in the army; his salary was paid by the state. We had an arranged marriage when I was 20 – our families were neighbours. We had liked each other for years. He was a lovely person; he had a good sense of humour and liked to help others. We had a happy life before the revolution. He was easygoing. He liked whatever I cooked. After he was killed and we buried him, we went to Damascus to be with my in-laws and wait for things to calm down. But then we heard, from family who were still there, that security had looted our house and set it on fire, so we had nowhere to live any more.
The rebels told us that in nearby towns – Ashira, Karm al-Zaytoun, Baba Amr – the security forces would rape the young women and slaughter them with knives. I have four teenage daughters, so our family told us that we should leave. We were smuggled to Jordan by the rebels. Because my husband was martyred, the security forces were after us. The regime keeps the names of the martyrs and comes for their families. We lost our papers when our house was burned down.
Our escape started at 8pm, after dark. We were told to wear black and walk without making a sound. My 18-year-old daughter carried my four-year-old. We were so afraid that the security forces would ambush us. There were four families including ours; 10 rebels walked side by side with us and there were rebels in front and behind. It was hilly and the ground was rocky. There was moonlight. We were so frightened, just waiting to cross the border.
My brother-in-law rented this place for us. The church gave us the mattresses and a stove and the Islamic centre helps with food. We came with nothing; we barely carried ourselves.
Um Ahmed 38, from Baba Siba, Homs. Mother of four sons:
My husband, Abu Ahmed, ,was an army officer. He worked for the ministry of defence as an inspector in an armaments factory. We had a good life. My husband had a good salary. I am a midwife, like my mother and three aunts. I have been delivering babies since I took the certificate when I was 14. My mother and my three aunts are also midwives. I can’t tell you how many babies I have delivered, too many to count. When the revolution started, the Syrian army asked him to report for duty. He refused to go because they were killing children, so they arrested him.
He was in jail for 22 days. Then he told them, OK, he would join them. As soon as he was released he prepared our passports and our papers and got us out of the country. We have four sons, all boys, aged 16, 14, 12 and 10. Then he defected and formed his own battalion to fight against the Syrian army. That was in December 2011.
We had been married for 20 years. I first saw my husband outside my school when I was 16; he worked nearby. Do you believe in love at first sight? He was good-looking, blonde and blue-eyed; his family was originally from Russia. I pretended not to look at him, but he came over and tried to talk to me. I was shy at first, but then I gave in. I couldn’t help it. After two years we got married. My family didn’t approve because they were of a different sect, but we were very happy. Abu Ahmed was very liberated, he allowed mixed socialising, with men and women. He wasn’t one of those husbands always asking “Where did you go today?” “Who did you visit?” He trusted me. He would send me texts to my cell phone. He wrote me this poem two months ago.
It’s true we are distant for nights,
It’s true we are busy being concerned
But precious remains precious
And appears in every dream.
He was killed a month ago fighting in Houla in the battle there.
I didn’t find out the day he died. My family told me gradually. They told me “your husband was shot” then said he might have passed away. Two days after he died, they told me he had been killed. I felt that I lost a piece of my heart. I told my eldest, Ahmed, myself, but the neighbours had to tell the youngest. I am proud he was killed for a good cause and was not a traitor to his country or his people.The Koran says: “Those who are killed fighting for the cause of God are alive and not dead.” I’m surviving with the help of God and have a strong personality. I don’t like to collapse in front of my kids. If I fall apart, what will happen to them?
Intissar, 33, from Ashira in Homs. Widowed last year; her husband died of natural causes. She arrived in Marfraq one month ago:
I stayed in Homs to take care of my dying father. I’m the youngest of 10. He had a stroke when our neighbourhood was attacked. We had to carry him as we escaped the tanks. When we got back to our house after the attack, my father asked all his daughters to leave Homs because they were raping women.
I said: “I don’t care. Let the Assad regime and the Shabiha kill me. I just want to be with my dad.” It was worth it to be with him for the last days of his life. My father died 40 days ago, aged 95.
Homs now is the ugliest place you can imagine. Totally deserted, houses like ghosts. No electricity, no water, no bread. You hear explosions. In Ashira we were one of only five families left. At 5pm we started covering up the widows with blankets so that when we lit the candles we didn’t show the Syrian army that people live there. Soldiers looted our neighbours’ homes, taking all their appliances. I saw them carrying them down the street.
When my dad needed medical aid, I carried him out of the house. My brother hid a car in a garage and he would come and get us. We took dad to a Red Crescent hospital in a Palestinian neighbourhood in Homs. That area was safe. They had a marketand you could find everything, so that is also where we got our food.
When the Syrian army saw us they would taunt us. They would ask: “Do you want freedom?” and we would say “No, we are with you, we want you and your regime.”I wish I could go back to Syria. I want to go and fight with the Free Syria Army. I helped my nephews when the town was hit with explosives. There were bodies everywhere in the street and I helped carry them into cars. I took a family that was hit to a field hospital. I am serious, I would fight. If they allowed women, I’d be the first to enrol. I have no kids, so nothing to fear. I asked my nephews, who are in the FSA, to bring me a uniform to disguise me like a man so I could fight with them. My nephews started calling me “Muhammad”. They were going to attack the security forces and said I could come. They had Syrian army uniforms to confuse the actual army. My 13-year-old nephew was shot dead by the Syrian army and I swore to kill 100 of the security to avenge his death. My nephews promised to let me kill one – I even had the uniform on – but their mother, my sister, said no.
I feel like we don’t have a country any more. Even though we lived through the revolution we were happy because we were defending our country. At the end of the night we could thank God that we had made it through another day and that the rebels had come back alive. Every time they left they would say goodbye to all of us as if they would never see us again.
Manal, 38. Intissar’s sister; from Ashira in Homs. Seven children: one son dead, three sons and three daughters:
If a revolution began in our area, it is because my son Ayman was killed. He was 13 and he was shot by the Syrian army. Neighbours filmed it and then TV picked it up. His killing made such a huge impact on everyone.
He loved football. I bought him a ball the week before he died. He was shot in the street in spring 2011. I told him not to go out because the army was coming, but he went out anyway. All the young people did. Five minutes later he was hit. My brother picked Him up and started driving him to the hospital with my two sons; he was still alive. On the way to the hospital they were stopped by security and asked what demonstration they were in. They interrogated my brother and wanted to arrest him. So my sons took Ayman out of the car and ran carrying him to the hospital. But it was too late.
After that my two eldest sons joined the rebels. I didn’t want them to. I wanted them to stay with me, but it was no use. Sometimes they would bring their comrades to my house and many of them would spend the night. My mother would say, “You are running a hotel!” They liked to eat anything that they could eat quickly. One day I made molokhia [a traditional chicken stew made with a spinach-like vegetable]. I waited but they did not come, so finally I went to sleep. When I woke up, everything was gone; not just the food but the pots it was cooked in. Their friends had come, not even my sons, and taken the food for their comrades.
I never locked the door once the fighting began. All of us mothers left our doors open because we didn’t want our sons to have to wait outside on the streets with the snipers watching for them.
Five months ago my eldest son was detained. He is 21. I am hopeful he is still alive. My 19-year-old, Hamza, left to go to Idlib and fight. I haven’t heard from him either. The FSA don’t carry phones with them so the Syrian forces can’t locate them. We also heard about women being kidnapped and raped. I made my daughter, who has darker skin anyway, sit out on the roof every day in the sun so she would get even darker and when the Shabiha came to the house they wouldn’t look at her. I took only five-minute showers; every day we were ready to flee at any moment.
Finally I left Homs because I only had one of my four sons left and I was afraid for his life. He encouraged me to leave because he was afraid for his sisters.
We came through the fence with just the clothes on our backs. When I arrived in Jordan I started crying; out of sadness to leave my country and out of happiness that I was alive and saved the lives of my remaining children. The Jordanian guards treated us kindly and served us tea. They brought blankets for the ones who were cold.
I really miss my son Hamza’s eyes. When he left I would always stand in the door and watch him and when he would get to the end of the street he would signal to me with his eyes and his head to get back in the house; he was afraid for me. I miss that look in his eyes.Everyday I remember my kids, dead and missing. This is how my day is.