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Escaping Harrowing Tragedy, Refugees Make Treacherous Crossings Out of Syria

January 31, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: And we turn to two stories about conflict in the Middle East.

As the battle in Syria between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, rages on, thousands of refugees flood into neighboring countries.

Jonathan Miller Independent Television News takes us to a secret crossing point on the border with Jordan on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Daraa.

JONATHAN MILLER: Katiba Jaber is a lonely place, exposed to desert winds that chill you to the bone. The border guard is ready for what the night will bring.

JONATHAN MILLER: The shooting started shortly after sunset. The Syrians fire at the Jordanians every night, but the Jordanians don’t fire back.

And Bashar’s forces shoot and shell the groups of refugees hiding somewhere down there in the darkness. Unexpectedly, a Jordanian ambulance arrives, on board, four old people who had somehow become separated from their group. They may have been the target of the gunfire, but they made it — just. They’re exhausted.

There’s a lot of shooting going on now. This old man and these few who’ve arrived here are a group of I think about 45 among a much larger group. You can hear the firing going on right now, and there has been shellfire. Those down on the border must be utterly terrified.

I went up to the watchtower. We weren’t allowed to film the night-vision screen, but I was allowed to report what I could see.

I have seen a group of about 80 refugees hiding in a ditch behind a berm. I have seen an FSA position and their commander and his vehicle. I have seen three T-72 tanks of the Syrian army and several missile batteries. They know exactly where the refugees are and they have been firing at them. The refugees are now on the move and are heading this way.

We join the reception party and head down the hill towards the frontier, no lights. We’re in direct line of fire. They’re talking to the FSA commander. A deep ditch demarcates the border. Rebel soldiers are building a mud bridge. We could turn our camera light on now. Here, we were hidden from the known Syrian positions.

Out of the blackness, they emerged. They’d run the gauntlet of their oppressor. Now they were but a few short steps from safety. Behind them, a building blazes, hit by shellfire. This ditch wasn’t the intended crossing point. Pinned down by regime gunfire, the FSA had changed the plan. The final head count for this group reached 149.

They are now at the limit of endurance. They have been walking for hours, braced for instant death. The soldiers guide them the long way round and up the hill, out of sight of Syrian forces; 3,000 Syrians are entering Jordan like this every night now, 24 crossing points like this, along a 250-mile-long frontier; 60,000 have crossed in January alone.

They have made it to Katiba Jaber, lights, gas fires, water, food and shelter, and a dawning realization that the terror is behind them. As they recovered, some sat quietly. Some wept. Others wanted to tell us what it was they’d run from.

Haj Zedan said they’d undergone a suffocating siege, no food, no sleep, just fear.

Fawzia said they had died many deaths to get here.

Then we met Marwa.

MARWA: They went into the house of my husband’s cousin and they burned him alive. They came into our house and set fire to it, my brother-in-law’s clinic as well. They burned everything. There’s nothing left, only destruction. I don’t care. I just care about my children. Thank God we arrived safely.

JONATHAN MILLER: Marwa’s eldest son, Mohammed, is 10 years old. He talked matter-of-factly of unspeakable depravity.

MOHAMMED: A bomb flew into our neighbor’s house and the house exploded. Our neighbor’s head landed in our house. We were very scared.

JONATHAN MILLER: This family painted an apocalyptic picture of their hometown, Bosra al-Sham, an ancient city, now a scene of slaughter, with even children’s corpses in the streets.

WOMAN: Today, as we left Bosra, they fired about 200 shells at us in just one hour. Everyone was dead. My husband’s entire family was killed. There are burials everyday in Bosra al-Sham, sometimes six or seven, sometimes as many as 12. They are having to retrieve the bodies from the streets with ropes. Even now, there are still bodies in the streets.

I swear to God, when we left, there were bodies littering the streets.

JONATHAN MILLER: But this long night was far from over.

At 4:00 a.m., another 358 Syrians entered Jordan at this same crossing; 14 of them were shot and wounded as they did so. In the small hours of the morning, Marwa, Mohammed, and their family left with their fellow travelers to begin a new life as refugees in Jordan’s Zaatari camp, 18 miles, as the crow flies, from the smoldering ruins of their home.