There were three more kilometers for Abo Khalil and his family to reach the Jordanian border. Members of an FSA battalion dropped them off as close as possible to the border post by car. The family continued the journey on foot. Jordanian border forces welcomed the new arrivals into a reception room where they had to sign some papers. As they waited, UN staff started to hand out water and juice as well as sweets for the children. Although the family destination was the Al-Za'tri camp of ill repute, it seemed to them that they were finally safe and sound.
Following the botched assassination attempt on King Hussein in 1970, many Palestinians had become persona non-grata in Jordan. Abu Khalil, like many other Palestinians was forced to leave. He came to Damascus where he lived stateless, given that his Jordanian nationality was withdrawn. However, political negotiations resulted in a Palestinian passport being procured for him in 2007.
For the third time in their lives, this family, originally from Jerusalem, was displaced. This time it was the heavy shelling and continuous raids by the Syrian regime that drove them from their home in Zamalka - a suburb of Damascus. They fled to Misraba -another suburb to the east of the capital - where they stayed with some relatives. It was not long before Misraba and the surrounding areas also came under attack by the regime and they were all forced to flee once more.
No sooner had the UN team called it a night at the border post and left the refugees, but the Jordanian border force performed a volte-face, ordering the families to go back to wherever they came from. For Abu Khalil it felt like a crude joke given that just a short while previously details of the refugees was being taken and recorded. The officer in charge was adamant; shouting at them to empty the place and leave. Bewildered displaced Syrians and Palestinians, numbering around 50 in total, were forced to turn back and make their way through the wild scrub and land-mine-potted desert at around midnight.
The officers didn't bother justifying their decision to the 70 year old diabetic Abu Khalil. They didn't allow themselves to be moved either by his elderly wife or by the frightened young children who were with them. The closest inhabited village was 15km away but the families supported one another and followed the glimmering green glow of the promise held out by that village's minaret. In stark contrast to the reaction of the Jordanian officers, residents of al-Mita'ia village opened their homes to the exhausted families, assuring them of a hospitable refuge.
Jamil Al-Hamda, a combatant in Al-Na'ima martyrs FSA battalion in Dar'a explained the real situation at the borders:"Jordanian border officers deal with a smuggling gang headed by someone who goes by the name of Abo Mosa, for a sum of two thousands to three thousands JD a day. The smugglers divide the desert smuggling routes between them, and they have been earning huge sums of money at the expense of refugees. It is not unusual for them to ask for more than twenty five thousands SL (350-450$) in order to accompany fleeing families into Jordan. We (the FSA ) get nothing for what we do, because it's our duty to help people. Therefore, the Jordanian officer, named Abo Abdullah, prevented the refugees from entering. He wants people to ask for refuge through the smugglers, as he earns a good kickback from this.
Smuggling networks have always been at work along the Syrian-Jordanian borders. However, the growing crisis in the region has turned some into human smuggling gangs – turning the miserable situation of displaced people into cash. There are unconfirmed reports that Syrian border officials are also involved in these networks. Stories abound of the inhumane conditions under which refugees are smuggled across into Jordan, including being locked inside air-tight containers.
While I was interviewing the FSA for this piece, I overheard a telephone call from Abu Musa in which he tried to cut a deal with Jamil's group of fighters. He offered to pay 20,000 Syrian Pounds for each day they refused to help smuggle refugees across the border. The offer was declined. But I started to ask: why doesn't the FSA confront these networks and prevent them from exploiting vulnerable people? A civilian combatant from al-Naima battalion speaking under anonymity told me that to do so would open up a new front against smugglers - which the FSA could ill-afford - and would ultimately hinder people from reaching refuge in Jordan.
So far, the Syrian refugee crisis hasn't been dealt with as a humanitarian issue but rather has been played out as a commercial and political joker in a pack of cards. International relief organisations have been unable to meet the needs of increasing numbers of Syrian refugees. The issue of refuge in Jordan looks ever more precarious given that the Arab Spring winds of change have begun to blow across the Hashemite Kingdom in the past week.
While Palestinians in Syria find themselves at the receiving end of the regime's heavy artillery, more than one and half million Palestinians are passing day and night under the threat of Israeli fighter jets and rocket attacks. However, for Abu Khalil, at least Gazans have the honour of being terrorized on their own land. For this reason, a man who has tasted the bitter fruit of multiple displacements before, Abu Khalil has decided to return to his home of the last 42 years in rural Damascus, whatever the consequences. As he told me: "Life under bombardment is easier to handle than the humiliation at border posts".
Thousands thanks for Tahir Zaman for editing this article
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