They were going home — leaving the overcrowded, windblown Zaatari refugee camp and returning to their villages in Syria.
On many days in the past month, more refugees returned to Syria than entered Jordan, where an estimated 500,000 have sought refuge since the conflict began.
In the Zaatari camp, home to 140,000 displaced Syrians, many said they were heading back because they feared that the rebels were losing and that any day, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad would seize control of the last safe zones along the Syria-Jordan border and leave them stranded on the wrong side.
The reverse exodus comes as Syrian fighters and refugees in northern Jordan exude a thrumming panic that the tides of war are turning against them.
In interviews at the Zaatari camp and with a dozen Syrian rebel commanders and fighters passing through Jordan, many said Assad’s forces, aided by foreign fighters from Iran, Lebanon and Iraq, had gained the advantage.
Rebel commanders said their men were subsisting on water, a few pieces of bread, and whatever they could scavenge or beg from markets and fields. Some had been eating grape leaves, they said. They described battalions in which rebel troops were carrying only a few dozen bullets per man into battle. They said that roads they once controlled had been taken by Assad forces.
The refugees also described a grim life in the camps, especially as the heat of summer builds.
“We would rather die in dignity back home than beg in Jordan,” said Mohammed al-Ghanem, who was set to return to his home village of Al Shajareh with his five children after spending the last of his $2,000 in life savings over the past four months in the camp.
“We are seeing high numbers of Syrians returning home in recent days,” said Andrew Harper, the representative for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Jordan.
In the past month, Harper said, 500 Syrians on average would enter Jordan each day as 250 returned home. “We don’t recommend it. The situation in the camps is dire, but the situation in Syria is worse,” he said.
Harper said there were days when returnees to Syria greatly outnumbered those seeking refuge in Jordan. On Wednesday, for example, more than 3,000 Syrians boarded buses at the Zaatari refugee camp.
On Thursday and Friday, though, the numbers of Syrians going home dropped to zero, as Assad’s troops engaged in heavy shelling around border towns — which increased dread in the camps that it would be difficult to get home.
Assistance from afar
News that President Obama promised to provide rebels with light arms — and that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya would send antitank and antiaircraft weapons — was greeted here with skepticism.