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Since the conflict in Syria began more than two years ago, Syrian refugees have been streaming into neighboring countries. An estimated half million have gone to Jordan. Last month, according to U.N. officials, some 9,000 of those refugees left overcrowded camps in Jordan. They returned to their homes in Southern Syria despite accounts of heavy fighting in the region. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.
DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: The chaos begins at sundown when the desert wind whips up the sand and the buses arrive. The heaving crowd surges forward, men punch their way to the front, panicked children shriek as they're hoisted and pulled through the open windows along with blankets and luggage.
There are Jordanian riot police who are also watching this. There are women crying, standing inside the bus. Their families can't get to them, but everybody is pushing to try to get on that bus.
They are desperate to get back to Syria, fleeing a grim life in Jordan's refugee camps.
The riot police have now stepped in. They're standing at the front of the bus, at the door. The bus is completely packed. There's not enough room for everybody who is standing out here.
When the buses finally pull away, headed for the Syrian border, more than 400 get a place, but hundreds more are left behind. And they shout goodbye to family and friends. Some collapse and weep at the side of the road. This young mother, who wouldn't give her name, says all her family has gone back to Syria.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: Life is very bad at Zaatari, she says, naming the camp where more than 120,000 Syrian refugees are sheltered in tents and trailers. This refugee has everything he owns in a plastic sack. He didn't get a place on today's bus. He'll try again tomorrow.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Zaatari here is hell. It's awful. Everything is just a bad situation.
AMOS: The reverse exodus comes as Syrian rebels have made gains in southern Syria, pushed back government troops around the city of Daraa. U.N. officials say about 10,000 refugees return each month. Kilian Kleinschmidt heads the U.N. office at Zaatari camp.
KILIAN KLEINSCHMIDT: The pressure is very high because people are anxious to either join the struggle or to look after their belongings, their properties.
AMOS: Is it safe for people to go back now to Daraa?
KLEINSCHMIDT: We don't think so. Everybody will tell you about constant shelling.
AMOS: But even as shelling has increased, the flow of refugees into Jordan has slowed substantially and, on some days, has stopped altogether. Activists say there is an obvious reason for the decline. They claim Jordan has closed a major crossing point. The Jordanian government denies that. But rebels say there are now quotas enforced by Jordan's border police.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: This video posted a few weeks ago shows Syrians, many of them children, stranded in an open field. The narrator says thousands are here. The border police won't let them in. Jordan has been overwhelmed by the refugee influx. Officials complained bitterly that Jordan, a poor country of six million, is under enormous strain. The refugee camps are overcrowded. Conditions are miserable, especially in the summer heat. Jordan's sympathy for refugees is wearing out, says this rebel from southern Syria.
RA'ED AKRAD: (Through Translator) We're treated differently here. We're treated as we have come from outer space, as if we're here to take over their country.
AMOS: Ra'ed Akrad is learning to walk again along with other rebels at this Jordanian rehab hospital. He's recovering from shrapnel wound that sheared off his right leg. His family went back to Daraa last week, and he vows he'll return to a home that's been devastated by the fighting.
AKRAD: (Through Translator) The house was actually hit with a rocket, and so three of the rooms are gone. One room remains with a bathroom, and that's where the family is now staying.
AMOS: More families are heading back to Syria than ever before. Life is dire in Jordan's camps, but conditions in Syria are often worse. So for now, the vast majority of refugees are staying put, half a million settling in, resigned to a long stay. Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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