Refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan try to squeeze on one of the buses heading back to Syria. Syrian refugees have been coming to Jordan for two years, but some are now starting to head home.
Refugees at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan try to squeeze on one of the buses heading back to Syria. Syrian refugees have been coming to Jordan for two years, but some are now starting to head home. Peter Breslow/NPR
In the Jordanian desert, the chaos begins at sundown, when the wind whips up the desert sand and the buses arrive. For the past two years, Syrian refugees have been streaming into Jordan, and they now number an estimated half million.
But for the past month, more refugees have returned to Syria than entered Jordan, and hundreds are leaving daily from Zaatari, the U.N.'s largest refugee camp in Jordan.
"Four buses are going every day," says Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari. "Depending on how many people manage to storm the buses, it's probably 300 to 400 people."
A heaving crowd of refugees surges forward to get a place on the buses. Men punch their way to the front, panicked children shriek as they are hoisted and pulled through the open windows along with blankets and luggage.
Jordanian soldiers in riot gear try to keep order in a crowd desperate to get back to Syria. More than 9,000 headed home in June, according to the official Jordanian count.
When the buses finally pull away toward the Syrian border, hundreds are left behind. They shout goodbyes to friends and family. Some collapse and weep at the side of the road.
A young mother, who wouldn't give her name, was seeing off her aunt and uncle. Her three young children are the only family she has left in Zaatari, the camp where more than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in tents and trailers.
"Life is very bad at Zaatari," she says. Another refugee has a plastic sack over his shoulder filled with everything he owns. He didn't get a place on the bus this day, but he vows to try again tomorrow.
"Everything here is awful when it comes to getting on the buses," he rants, refusing to give his name. "You only get on if you have some kind of influence; otherwise you just sit here and wait."
Recent Rebel Advances
This reverse exodus comes as Syrian rebels have made gains in southern Syria. The rebels have pushed back government troops around the city of Dera'a, a rare victory. The rebels farther north have been routed by the Syrian army.
Rebel commanders interviewed in Jordan confirm the number of returnees is rising.
"The more areas we liberate, the more they come back," said Mohammed al-Dehni, who commands a company of armed men in the south.
"The pressure is very high because people are anxious to either join the struggle or to look after their belongings, their properties," says Kleinschmidt, the U.N. official. But he does not advise refugees to return. Even with rebel gains, the fighting has intensified in Dera'a.
"Everybody will tell you about constant shelling," he says.
And yet the flow of refugees into Jordan has slowed substantially, and on some days, has stopped altogether. Syrian activists say this is because Jordan has closed a major crossing point.
The Jordanian government denies closing any part of the border, but Syrian rebels, who coordinate the refugee flows, say there is now a quota, enforced by Jordan's border police.
A video posted a few weeks ago from southern Syria shows thousands of Syrians, many of them children, stranded in an open field near the border.
A Huge Burden For Jordan
Jordan has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx. Officials complain bitterly that Jordan, a poor country of 6 million, is under enormous strain. The refugee camps are overcrowded and conditions are miserable, especially in the summer heat. Even more Syrian refugees live in Jordan's urban areas, which has put a strain on the economy and the country's diminishing water resources.
Jordan's sympathy for refugees is wearing out, says Ra'ed Akrad, a rebel from Dera'a.
"We are treated differently here, as if we are from outer space, like we are trying to take over the country," he says.
Akrad is being treated in a Jordanian rehabilitation hospital, where other injured rebels are learning to walk again. He's recovering from shrapnel wounds that sheared off his right leg.
His family came with him to Jordan when he was wounded, but returned to Dera'a last week. He says he will also return to Syria to a home that has been devastated by the fighting.
"The house was actually hit with a rocket and so three of the rooms are gone," he says. "One room remains with a bathroom and that's where the family is now staying."
Despite those like Akrad who are returning, the vast majority of refugees are staying put, settling in, and resigned to a long stay.