Since Tuesday, the woman and 27 of her family members have been hiding in a tent made out of floor mats just outside the free zone at the Jordanian border, she told me over the phone. One of her nephews was killed by airstrikes last week, she said, and the whole family had fled here in hopes of protection. “We are afraid. Surrender is not far from us. We are afraid of what will happen,” she said. In recent days, they’d moved just beyond the free zone because they were afraid it would be besieged, as the Syrian government has done to other rebel enclaves. “We are living in horror,” the woman said.
Convoys run by the UN and humanitarian agencies were unable to cross the border because they could be hit by airstrikes. According to a Human Rights Watch statement, eight airstrikes on hospitals occurred over eight days, killing at least one doctor. Most medical facilities in south Syria closed. Afraid to cross, aid trucks lined up along the Jordan side, while spokespeople decried the lack of access. “This is a catastrophe in the making, but it can be stopped at any moment, and it has to be stopped,” Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said in a statement.
The scale of that catastrophe is crushing. Displaced Syrians along the border are using holes in the ground as toilets, and living in makeshift tents stretched over sticks of wood. A rising number of sick people and children have died from scorpion stings, dehydration, and drinking contaminated water. According to the UN, nearly half of the displaced are children. The Norwegian Refugee Council’s statement also included reports of pregnant women giving birth in the open desert.
Earlier this week, Medecins Sans Frontieres’ Salah Daraghmeh said his group feared that people “already dying from conflict and war” were now at risk of even more death from manageable, preventable conditions like lack of access to water or cover from the sun. “When people are not protected, are not sheltered, it’s going to be like hell,” Daraghmeh said.
In Jaber Serhan, some Jordanians mobilized to donate blankets, food, and water to those across the border. “They don’t have anything. They are just children, women, elderly, our brothers,” Awad Serhan, a 60-year-old Jordanian who was helping to coordinate donations at a mosque in the border town, told me. The relief they were gathering came from the people of Jordan, they emphasized, not from the government. “We would be happy to open the borders. We’d make a camp for them,” Serhan said. “But we need support from outside to do this”—a reference to Jordan’s ongoing economic and unemployment crisis. “We are also suffering,” one teenager on the hill overlooking the border told me.
The two-week advance on Daraa by Syria and its allies followed the formula they have deployed in other rebel-held territories: bomb the opposition without regard for civilian casualties, with greater intensity each time the rebels refuse to surrender; ignore the UN and aid agencies’ calls to protect civilians and humanitarian workers; win. With the United States recently telling the rebels that it would not provide them with any military support, they know they have little leverage in any negotiations. Six hundred airstrikes occurred during the 15 hours between the two most recent rounds of talks, killing 150 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.