By Maha Abu Shama, Amnesty International’s Syria campaigner
In a week of winding our way to a refugee camp near the Syrian border, we spoke to dozens of people who had fled the violence, but remarkably few of them were women.
Finally, when we reached al-Ramtha transitional camp on the fourth day, I was told that one of the five residential buildings there hosted a few families who had just arrived from Syria the day before.
Leaving our cameras at the door, we were given two hours to speak to the refugees, so my colleague and I split up to make the most of the time.
Entering the building where the families were said to be, I noticed a few children playing in a big bare hall that led to the kitchen and toilets. Five doors along its length opened into the rooms where the families were staying. Not knowing where to begin, I randomly chose a door and knocked.
Inside I saw a young woman, no older than 23, consumed with feeding her child.
After introducing myself, I asked her permission to let me inside to talk. She paused – I’m not sure if her hesitation was out of curiosity or shyness – the Arab mentality puts hospitality first, even if you are a refugee with nothing material to offer.
Two minutes later, three other women appeared, each with several children ranging in age from a few months to five years old.
It turned out that two of the women were sisters and the other two were their sisters-in-law. All four were from Tasil, a village near Dera’a, around 10 km across the border in Syria, and they were all staying in this one room.
Initially they were reluctant to answer my questions. One of them said, “We are a bit scared to give you information as we don’t know if you would tip off the Syrian authorities.”
After explaining what Amnesty International does and how they had no need to worry, the women relaxed a bit. The first woman who initially allowed me in and her sister told me how they had lost their elder brother 10 months ago. “He was killed by a sniper that was planted in a Dera’a city neighbourhood where he, his wife and children lived.”
Then, dispassionately and almost as if recounting someone else’s story, they told me that another of their brothers was killed just a week ago.
“He was an activist and was on the run for a few months. The tanks stormed into our village around a week ago and we heard that he was caught off guard so had to rush to one of the houses to hide. They followed him and shot him dead in front of a teenage girl who lived there. We heard that ever since [that,] she lost her ability to speak as a result of the shock.”
They went on to say that in addition to their brother, seven other people were killed in one week. I asked whether they knew their names, and they rattled off a couple. Were they all men? Only then did they remember that a woman was also shot while putting out her laundry on the roof. Even in death, it seems, a woman’s story is an afterthought.
The women explained how they had been in Damascus when all this happened, having left Tseel around two months ago. All of their husbands are on the run and they have not seen them in months.
“One day before we left Tasil I was looking out from the window and saw security forces chasing a man in the farms near the village. They were shooting at him and I thought no doubt they would kill him. When I looked closely I realised that that man was actually my husband. Thank god he managed to escape,” said the young mother I spoke to first.
At that stage, the women became much more relaxed and they began to talk all at once. They told me stories about burned homes, shops and widespread looting. About how they use the words “security forces” to discipline their children – to get them to sleep or stay quiet.
They explained how they had left Syria in the dead of night, walking for miles with their children before crawling on their bellies into Jordan to avoid being spotted by the Syrian border security.
“We had to leave Damascus for Jordan because our husbands are on the run. If they do not catch the activists they would eventually go after their families,” they told me.
Before we parted ways, the women told me the family in the next room were also from Tasil. “The man lost his meat shop – it was all burned down. Go see him, he’ll tell you lots of things.”
And so I made my way farther down the hall.