More than 60,000 people are stranded on a remote strip of desert on the far eastern border between Jordan and Syria—two thirds of them women and children.
They're in the demilitarized zone between Jordan and Syria, a stretch of rugged, sun-baked desert about four kilometers deep, bordered on the north and south by bulldozed earthen embankments, also known as berms. It's as inhospitable a place as you can imagine. Yet over the past seven or eight months, it has become temporary home to a glut of Syrians seeking refuge in Jordan, and the parasites who feed on them: smugglers, bandits, and Islamic State militants.
On the southern side, the area is policed by the Jordanian army, who say they have collected evidence—photographs from mobile phones, weapons, and bomb-making material—of Isis supporters and militants living on the berm, scattered amongst genuine refugees. The queue for asylum in Jordan is long, hampered by deep suspicion and lengthy security checks. Humanitarian agencies provide food, water, and some medical care from earthen berm, but soldiers and aid workers do not venture into the demilitarized zone. On the northern, eastern, and western sides there is no order at all as the chaotic settlement sprawls farther by the day.
What we know about life on the berm comes mainly from the testimonies of those Syrians later admitted into Jordan and housed at Azraq refugee camp. And in these accounts, there is a sharp gender divide.
Sat cross-legged in their shelters at Azraq, the men who survived the berm describe a near-Darwinian struggle for survival. Most speak of keeping their heads down in an uncontrolled, increasingly violent community after paying smugglers hundreds of dollars per person to get there. They refer to frequent inter-tribal fighting, an extortionate black market, the bad apples who regularly incite rioting when refugees queue up for food or aid, and a creeping panic that something might happen to their wives, daughters, and sisters. Few are willing to put into words what that "something" might be.
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The women who survived the berm at first have little to say. They look aside and say they didn't see much: they spent most of their time inside the tent. But over time, the stories start to trickle out: the babies delivered in the desert; the honeymoon spent in darkness; the blind panic as the sound of rioting approaches your tent, and you grab your children and run.
According to internal NGO documents citing data collected by aid workers working in the area, more than seven percent of people on the berm are pregnant women—about double the average you might expect in a typical community. The same data shows that as of April, the majority of pregnant women on the berm were in their seventh, eighth and ninth months of pregnancy.
Many of the women nursing new babies at Azraq say they waited until late pregnancy to flee for Jordan, not knowing they'd then spend weeks or months stuck in the desert.
Um Faten, a mother of four now living at Azraq, delivered her first three children in hospital in Hama. Her fourth, a girl named Faten, was born on 15 November in a tent on the berm, delivered by a midwife from Homs—another refugee awaiting entry to Jordan.
"I thought I was going to die. There was no anesthesia. No shots," said Um Faten, shaking her head.
"If the Red Cross sees there are complications in the pregnancy, they usually bring women inside Jordan to deliver. But she's healthy, look at her. The baby of the berm," she said.
Days after her all-night labour, Um Faten and her family were admitted to Jordan and given a shelter at Azraq. Not everyone is so fortunate. Ten days after Faten was born, a cousin went into labour with her sixth child. A vehicle from the International Committee of the Red Cross was present at the time, and the woman delivered baby Mohammad inside it. The two were taken to hospital in Ruwayshid, the closest town to the berm, and then, according to family, returned to the berm. More than four months on, as far as their family knows, they are still in the desert.
As the settlement at Ruqban has grown, the humanitarian response has become better-funded and more organized, with medical staff stationed on the berm most days. Recent antenatal arrivals at Azraq say they were told to register with medical staff at the start of their ninth month of pregnancy in order to be admitted to Jordan pre-delivery on humanitarian grounds. Sahar Hussein is one of those women.
"We spent our honeymoon in a tent," she said, smiling at her husband, Aamer. The two had been married five months and were four months pregnant when they began their journey from Palmrya to Jordan. They sold their wedding rings to pay smugglers to get them to the berm and to buy a tent as basic supplies.
"My biggest worry was that Sahar would go into labor on the berm, after the doctor left," said Aamer, holding the couple's one-month-old baby, Loujan.
Surrounded by a growing number of desperate strangers, Aamer said he was terrified for Sahar's safety and so hid her from view. "My wife basically spent four months in a tent," he said.
The couple registered at the start of Sahar's ninth month and were admitted to Jordan shortly before Loujan was born. By then, mid-March, a network of volunteer midwives had been established and were being equipped by humanitarian agencies to provide care to mums delivering on the berm. But lives were still being lost. Among Azraq's newest residents are a father, his six-year-old son and an infant daughter, born after medical staff had left for the night. The children's mother died during labour for want of medical attention. She is buried on the berm.
Amongst women who have survived the berm, some of the most harrowing stories come from those who managed it alone.
We left after Da'esh entered our village. We had one hour to leave.
Twenty-four year-old Widad, a widowed mother of three from rural Homs, spent February on the berm with her mother, sister, children, and disabled father.
"We left after Da'esh entered our village. We had one hour to leave or Da'esh would come to our houses. We were totally unprepared, the kids didn't even have shoes. Our only goal was to get out," she said.
After a two-day journey south, Widad and her family found a spot in the demilitarized zone close to the border, near some other people from Homs. They built a tent the way most others did, collecting a wooden pallet at the berm, taking it apart and building two posts, and then using scarves to create a roofline. From this, they hung a grey felt blanket they got from the aid workers: home.
Widad would wait in the women's queue when aid was being distributed at the berm. But food shortages meant that they weren't always fed.
"We would wait from 11 AM until 6 PM and not get food," she said. "We lost so much weight, from the second we got to the berm the children were consistently sick and they lost between three and five kilograms each."
Aid shortfalls were not the only reason Widad and her children often went to bed hungry.
"There was a lot of fighting between tribes on the berm. On the day before we left theberm, different tribal groups were throwing rocks and the camp was up in arms. I grabbed my kids and ran back towards Syria and hid amongst those tents, waiting until after dusk. I went back when it was quiet again," Widad said, her voice shaking at the memory.
"My children are my weakness."
As a single mother, Widad is what humanitarian agencies describe as a "woman at risk." According to the latest NGO data, 21 per cent of women at Ruqban are classified as women at risk.
Women build their own latrines. There was human waste everywhere.
According to data collected by aid workers who service the berm, more than 18 per cent of people at Ruqban are aged four or under, and another 23 per cent are aged five through 11. In a society divided along traditional gender norms, this means women are saddled with the vast majority of childcare. In a place like Ruqban, where men—if they are present at all—are typically preoccupied with safety-related tasks, women face a near-endless gauntlet of domestic work in medieval conditions.
"The first thing is that there were no bathrooms. Women build their own latrines," said Um Ahmad, a mother of four from Homs. She spent mid-August 2015 through January 2016 on the berm, and said she had had no idea how difficult conditions would be.
"There was human waste everywhere," she recalled.
For people used to living in homes with running water and modern plumbing, as most Syrians are, the adjustment to life on the berm was exhausting.
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"If you bring water to your tent, you have it. If you don't, you don't," said Um Ahmad.
She said the skin disease leishmaniasis was rampant on the berm, and keeping kids clean was a constant challenge. If Um Ahmad's family was lucky, they'd receive soap and nappies from aid workers. When supplies ran out or rioting cut distributions short, they'd use what little money they had to buy soap on the black market.
Um Ahmad said she relied on her husband to haul water to the tent, where she would wash her children in buckets provided by aid agencies. Then, listening to the rumble of tens of thousands of strangers, just feet away, she would crouch down, remove her clothes in sections and quickly wash her own body.
Like every woman interviewed by Broadly, Um Ahmad was adamant: she did not feel safe on the berm.
"Never," she said. "But no matter how bad conditions are on the berm, it's better than in Syria."