The ground cracks like snakeskin. It'd be 40C in the shade if there was any.
Nothing’s here except for small fossils outlined in rock, discarded M16 shells and — in the distance — a small group of refugees sheltering under blankets.
It has taken us five hours to reach the middle of nowhere. We’ve crossed unforgiving terrain without even the comfort of a dirt track and each kilometre has been identical to the last — a vast, unforgiving Mars-like landscape punctuated by the occasional weathered limestone army post.
For the group of families huddled before us, it has taken much longer. They walked for days from the other side, where small clouds of dust now rise sporadically, each followed by a muffled, bassy boom.
“That’s Syria,” says the army commander, who has brought us to the no-man’s-land that separates Jordan from its imploding northern neighbour.
Syria has been bleeding its people through its borders for the past two years and this desert wasteland is one of the main arteries.
The people appearing on the horizon before us — so out of place here — have spent four days getting to the middle of nowhere, wrapping themselves in blankets and walking in the cold of night, then erecting those blankets into makeshift canopies to shelter from the heat during the day.
Our four-wheel drive vehicle comes to a stop about 100m away and the people remain completely still. One little girl cries and hides behind her mother. When they realise the soldiers approaching wear Jordanian uniforms, not Syrian, they gather their things.
Luggage bags — the kind you would usually see wheeled through airports — are carried or pulled behind them, along with an incongruous baby stroller, its wheels shredded by the razor-sharp stones on the ground.
From the look of their bags, they packed with no idea of what they would be facing. These were middle-class families with homes, cars and jobs. Nothing has prepared them for exile.The West Australian is the first media organisation to be granted access to Jordan’s remote north-eastern border with Syria, where refugees are making one of the most dangerous journeys in the world to get to safety.
President Bashar al-Assad has led the country since 2000 and stands at the forefront of the confrontation. He took power after his father Hafez — the 30-year leader of the country — died. When he took office at the age of 35, Western nations were hopeful that he would be more moderate than his father, who was a strong Soviet ally.
HOW DID THE CONFLICT START?
Syria’s turmoil began when the Arab Spring spread to Syria and sparked a series of demonstrations against Bashar’s regime. The protests started peacefully but in March 2011, violence broke out. The conflict turned bloody in the city of Daraa, where a group of children and teenagers were arrested for writing political graffiti. This led to peaceful protests and a brutal crackdown from Mr Assad’s regime as dozens of people were killed and detained after government security forces were called to stifle protests. There were massacres in the city and widespread reports of torture.
Last month, the United Nations estimated up to 100,000 people had died in the civil war. To escape the violence, more than 1.7 million Syrian refugees have fled the country to neighbouring Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, while thousands also ended up in more distant countries. According to the UN, another six million people in Syria need help and about four million Syrians are internally displaced.
An umbrella of groups and individuals have risen in opposition to the government. The largest of these is the Free Syrian Army. Many of the fighters are former soldiers who defected from the military but there are civilians and students who have taken up the fight against the Assad regime.
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