More than 150,000 people have fled Syria for Jordan since violence erupted in the country in March 2011. Yet on an ordinary Tuesday outside the municipality building in Ramthe, a small town close to the Syrian border, I find Mahmoud from Homs holding a list with the names of 50 men (they are always men).
“I’m here to demand the Jordanian authorities’ permission to go back to Syria for us all,” he says firmly. “If we don’t get it, we’ll stage a sit-in here from tomorrow until we do.” The men are among a growing number of refugees who want to return to Syria – to fight with the rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Those who left after being targeted by government forces for their roles with the FSA feel that the time to return is now. “The shabiha [government thugs] called me and told me I had a week to leave Syria, or we will kill your family,” Mahmoud tells me. “I was supporting the FSA but living in an area where most support the regime, and it wasn’t safe: I left with my wife and kids in April.
“But now, the FSA have been calling me, telling me there are more weapons. The situation is desperate, they need us and we want to help them. There are soldiers waiting to defect, but they’re waiting for me to get there and help them, as they trust me. If we stay here, Syria will belong to Bashar [al-Assad].”
The Jordanian government and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation – an umbrella body that controls aid in the cash-poor, aid-rich kingdom – state that 1,100 legal applications to return have been posted. The numbers of illegal attempts are likely to be higher, although at an average US$500 per head, the price may be a deterrent.
Legal applications may be conducted through public bodies such as the ministry of the interior,but their enactment, according to the refugees themselves, comes via the mukhabarat, or secret services.
“You have to wait around until they find a safe point on the border – and you have to be ready for when they do,” said Ali Kubai, from Damascus, speaking in a dingy apartment in Irbid, 15 kilometres from the border. “Then they drive you to the border, and the FSA should be waiting on the other side.
“The alternative is that you find a guide and pay them to do this. If you get caught, you go to prison for a few days, maybe a week at most. But then they drive you to the border anyway.”
Although Jordan made much of its shared border remaining open, it was previously very keen that its public face be neutral.
As the numbers of people crossing the border are now reaching up to 2,000 every day, however, covertly sending a handful of refugees back to fight and perhaps put an end to the turmoil that is beginning to spill over the border is clearly starting to look more politically advantageous.
Even for those who cannot get back into Syria, the fight goes on. Mohammed Adel Tharwan, an Islamic teacher-turned-anti-Assad rebel, controls his unit of 100 FSA fighters by Skype from Jordan, speaking to them “constantly, throughout the day”. Modern warfare, indeed.