Saturday night on the border between Jordan and Syria: Colonel Nawaf Tahrawi, a commander of the Royal Jordanian Border Guard, climbed to the top of a three-story concrete watchtower, built next to a scrub-filled streambed.
In the cold dark of a cramped concrete room, Tahrawi asked a soldier operating a sophisticated thermal camera system if he had seen any movement in his sector. Just packs of dogs, he said, but he added that activity would no doubt pick up soon.
The cameras fixed atop the watchtower were aimed into Syria. Their operator, a 23-year-old corporal, was looking for Republican Guardsmen loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and for the Free Syrian Army rebels fighting Assad’s forces. Tahrawi said the two sides have been shooting at each other just across the border, their fire sometimes straying into Jordanian territory. “The shooting is all over the place,” he said.
The cameras were also scouring the dark for refugees. The previous night, the colonel said, more than 1,000 of them had scrambled across the Jordanian border, 500 or so over the hard ground in front of us. He expected a similar number tonight: “They’re coming faster and faster now.”
The Syrian uprising began last year in Daraa, a few miles from this border post. The city and surrounding district have been systematically emptied of civilians by Syrian government oppression. Many of the city’s survivors are warehoused in the Zaatari refugee camp a few miles away. As of last week, Zaatari was housing some 42,000 Syrians in 5,000 tents. Jordan is now the temporary home of at least 200,000 Syrian refugees.
We waited. “Here,” the operator said. “Here are the trucks.” We watched as a line of six trucks, which appeared as white blocks moving against a gray-black background, departed the village of El-Taebah, about two miles inside Syria. The Free Syrian Army operated the trucks. First, Tahrawi said, the rebels would deliver their wounded. The Jordanian army had ambulances stationed nearby. A line of refugees would be following behind, he said, carrying suitcases and children on their backs. The operator repositioned his cameras. Soon enough, we could see the outlines of people, hundreds, huddled in knots. They were seated on the ground. Then they rose, seemingly as one, and began moving slowly across the screen.
“They’ll be here soon,” Tahrawi said. “Let’s go and greet them.” We climbed down from the tower and walked across brown fields in the frigid air. We descended into a wadi, a dry riverbed, and waited. We might have been on Syrian territory; the border is unmarked, and although the Jordanians are assiduous about keeping to their side of the border, it’s an impossible task in the dark.
Soon we heard a truck engine — the first delivery of the wounded. The truck stopped before us. Gunmen hopped off. They were bearded, armed with AK-47s, and their nerves were torn. The Jordanians introduced me. “Weapons!” one rebel yelled. “Tell Obama we need weapons!” A second rebel said, “I only have 60 bullets! Sixty! What can I do with this?”
The shabiha — pro-Assad militiamen — were all around. The delivery of refugees was becoming more hair-raising by the night.
The rebels began unloading the wounded. “This man was tortured,” one of the rebels said, pointing to a man prone on a stretcher. “Look what they did to him!” One of the rebels pulled down the man’s pants; his buttocks had been whipped, the skin shredded. Another man was carried off the truck. A government sniper had shot him in the abdomen a few hours before. His clothing was soaked with blood.
“I don’t think he will live,” one of the Jordanians said quietly.
About 40,000 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising so far, according to some estimates. Assad uses jet fighters and helicopters to strafe his own cities. The war is a humanitarian cataclysm. Intervention, even through air power alone, poses enormous challenges and dangers for the West. But standing idly by also comes with a terrible price.
One of the rebels took me by the hand. We walked into the darkness. “I am not al-Qaeda” he said, though I hadn’t asked. “When we kill Bashar, I will shave off my beard. I’m a law student, but I have no choice. Bashar killed my brother.”
In the dark, it was nearly impossible to see. It got quiet again. Then we heard them. First came the sound of children crying. Then the sounds of people shuffling and stumbling. They passed before us. Women in black hijabs, their faces covered by scarves, carrying their children, bundled against the cold. Some of the children were still asleep. It seemed like a procession without end. Old men came out of the dark, staggering and breathless. Most of the refugees were panting and wide-eyed. When they understood they had nearly crossed over into Jordan, many broke into a run.
One man couldn’t seem to move. Tahrawi came forward to help him. The man was crying. His son, he said, was an army defector. Assad’s forces came to their village to hunt him down. When they couldn’t find the son, they tortured the father. He showed us his wrists, where he had been bound. He doesn’t know, he said, where his son is. He assumes that he is dead.
One of the soldiers put his arm around the man. “You’re in Jordan now,” he said. “You’re safe.”
Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for The Atlantic.