As Ramisyah Ali El-Zaabi fled across the Syrian border - scaling a dirt wall, crawling under a fence and dropping to the ground amid gunfire - her eight-month-old daughter slept.
Afraid that her cries might draw attention, El-Zaabi fed her baby a pill to knock her out before she, her husband and four of their children set out on a 2.5-hour trek across the desert to reach the Syrian border and cross over into Jordan.
“God saved us from death,” she told IRIN from a run-down, overcrowded guesthouse in the northern Jordanian border town of Remtha, where she arrived at 2am with two suitcases and effectively no money.
She said she knew they were facing death when they paid a smuggler 15,000 Syrian pounds (US$262) to get them out of the southern Syrian city Dera’a, but they had no choice but to leave.
Syrians fleeing from hot spots like Dera’a say increased army operations in the area in the last few weeks have made life there all but impossible. According to aid workers and the independent international commission of inquiry into Syria, appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, the year-long unrest, which at first affected only targeted individuals or those who went out to protest, is increasingly affecting entire communities as it nears civil war.
In El-Zaabi’s town of Jiza, on the outskirts of Dera’a, more than half the stores are closed, she said; others are vandalized or looted. Pharmacies are open 1-2 hours a day; electricity comes on for three.
Bread is sometimes hard to find, and mazout (diesel) ran out last month, she said. Before she left, they used wood to make fires instead. Accessing basic goods has become a dangerous task at times.
“One day, I left home to get gas and bread, and five people were shot right in front of me,” said Abu Suleiman, of the Hay Ashira neighbourhood of the central city Homs, another hotspot, as he waited in line for assistance from the Jordan Red Crescent in another Jordanian border town, Mafraq. He fled on 3 March.
In both Dera’a and Homs, people can only go out easily during the day. Anyone who leaves their home in the evening hours risks being shot, refugees in Jordan told IRIN. Checkpoints are everywhere.
“They used to search our homes once in a while,” El-Zaabi said. “Now, daily, they search for specific people or occupy homes.”
Abu Suleiman said that in Hay Ashira, that government-allied militia burned homes they found empty.
One group of young men, who did not give their names for fear of reprisals against their families still in Syria, spoke to IRIN just hours after arriving at the Remtha guesthouse on 21 March.
They said militias and armed men in fatigues opened fire in their village, Saham al-Golan, at the edge of Dera’a Governorate the morning of their flight. When people sought shelter in their homes, the armed men then went door to door, taking away young men to serve in the military or searching for specific people on lists.
Having heard and witnessed horror stories - several of the young men spoke of a friend who was killed in his home the day before and an acquaintance who said he was raped while in detention - they fled when the security services came their way. About 30 of them left Dera’a together, they said. Only seven made it to Jordan; the whereabouts of the others are unknown – either arrested during the three-hour journey to the border, or allegedly shot by security forces as they tried to get across.
Saham al-Golan village borders the demilitarized zone of the Golan Heights - a disputed territory between Syria and Israel administered by UN peacekeepers and off-limits to the Syrian military. For that reason, it was relatively peaceful, the young men said, until recently. In the last month, army tanks have entered the village several times, and arrests and killings “are increasing by the day”.
Nithal Hassan, a refugee from al-Mizareeb village of Dera’a, said: “At first, they used to kidnap or arrest specific people. Now, there is random shooting. In every neighbourhood, there is a checkpoint. Sometimes you can leave the house, sometimes you can’t.”
In its second report to the Security Council in February, the UN commission of inquiry said entire families were being affected - either “brutally murdered”, especially in places like Homs, or abducted, despite taking no part in clashes, for the purposes of revenge or ransom.
|We had to leave to live…Staying simply was not an option|
Commission member Yakin Ertürk told journalists on 23 March that according to refugees interviewed by the Commission, excessive use of force at protests was no longer the main reason people were fleeing the country. Rather, they reported Syrian army attacks on entire villages in apparent signs of “collective punishment”, she said.
On 25 March, Human Rights Watch said Syrian government forces used local residents of the northern governorate of Idlib as “human shields”, forcing them to march in front of the army during arrests and attacks on towns.
Refugees told IRIN the risk to women and children was also growing - a view corroborated by the Commission.
“In such [house] raids, women were targeted for arbitrary arrest and detention, in many cases also to force male relatives to turn themselves in,” the report said.
Abdelbasit Mohamed Jahwani, of the Baba Amr neighbourhood of Homs, brought his daughters to Jordan three months ago because he feared they would be arrested after their brother defected from the army.
With men in hiding, arrested or killed, many women also found themselves having to cope with a range of additional responsibilities in providing and caring for their families, the Commission report said.
Children are also being separated from their families, according to Khaled Erksoussi, head of emergency operations at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, one of the few aid agencies operating on the ground. If parents are politically active, he said, they may send their children to safer areas. The reverse is also true. Young men afraid of arrest leave their families behind.
Refugees from Saham al-Golan and Jiza told IRIN their areas were increasingly void of young men, who fled to avoid arrest or military service. Some youth told IRIN they would go back to defend their families if they could get a hold of weapons in Jordan.
According to Mousab Azzawi, chair of the Syrian Network of Human Rights, which relies on a network of contacts on the ground for information, 7,600 people are displaced within Dera’a Governorate, which along with Hama, Homs and Idlib, has been the focus of increased military operations in recent weeks. As the unrest in Syria increasingly morphs into armed conflict, the UN says 200,000 people are in need of immediate humanitarian assistance across the country and many more have been affected.
“At first, for the first five or six months, we were just focusing on first aid, because that was the only need when the unrest started,” the Red Crescent’s Erksoussi told IRIN. “Then, when this moved into whole areas, or whole cities, that’s when the need has changed into relief and providing healthcare to villages or sub-villages.”
More people fleeing country
Other changes are happening too.
Where displacement used to be largely temporary - families would stay with relatives for a few weeks during military operations in their towns and then go home - Syrians are increasingly leaving the country altogether and insisting they cannot return until the regime changes.
Azzawi said his network’s statistics show a sharp rise in the number of deaths in the last few weeks, including an increase in the number of people killed by snipers.
Nazih Janeydeh, a nurse at the Remtha facility, told IRIN there has been a doubling in the number of cases entering his clinic in the last two weeks - many of them gunshot wounds.
Refugees from the same communities have been rediscovering each other in this guesthouse in Remtha after fleeing separately. Huddled under trees under a strong sun, they share their stories. One man from Dera’a told IRIN his brother was shot in the head by a sniper as he was trying to smuggle people out on a motorcycle.
The government says it is trying to restore security and clear these areas of “terrorists”. The Arab League, in a report based on its observer mission to Syria, acknowledged there were armed groups operating other than the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group of defectors and armed civilians whose stated goal is to defend civilians but who have increasingly conducted offensive operations.
More serious clashes are a distinct possibility: A former FSA commander named Mustafa told IRIN the FSA had “plenty of weapons” – delivered by Sunni allies within the army or smuggled into the country through Lebanon and Iraq. “We need heavier weapons, not more weapons.” The UN Commission of Inquiry report said the FSA was increasingly carrying out offensive operations; and another source said the opposition was getting larger, receiving more weapons, using heavier weapons in the last month, and becoming more militarized.
But activists say the increase in military operations in places like Dera’a is part of a push by the government to quell the opposition movement in more restive cities.
Either way, civilians are paying the price.
“We had to leave to live,” said Abderahim Douaik from the Hamideya neighbourhood of Homs, who arrived in Mafraq some three months ago. “Staying simply was not an option.”