The Jordanian Spring lasts only a month or so, but it’s a period of beauty. Particularly in the North, olive groves tint the landscape green, the night sky is clear with stars projected across it with a unique clarity and the late night temperature drops down to a crisp chill.
Ramtha is your archetypal ghost town, once a bustling frontier for trade between the Levant and as far down as the gulf states of Oman and the Emirates. Shops lie empty, half-heartedly vandalised and grafitied with rebellious clichés. Ambitious building projects lie half completed, building supplies strawn across the road and the traffic is non-existent.
Travelling on foot through the centre of town and I have a sense of relief that I’m out of the big city despite the world’s most devastating conflict being within touching distance. Looking out towards the hills there are plumes of smoke rising, polluting an otherwise picturesque landscape.
Da’raa, Syria’s southern capital lies just over the border, a few kilometres, and it has been shown no mercy by Syria’s warring factions. Assad’s air force drop barrel bombs and shell rebel locations like trigger happy teenagers playing the latest “shoot ‘em up”. Always audible, and sometimes even visible from Jordanian territory.
I’m here to meet a friend, Mohammed, he owns an olive grove that sits upon a hill just north of Ramtha. The hill offers impressive views of the local countryside and over the border into Syria, and it was an also an opportunity to enjoy that which I love most about Jordan. The hospitality of both east and west bankers is wonderful, often if you speak to someone in Arabic for more than two minutes you’ll be invited for dinner at their house and to meet their family.
We leave the main road, which is haunted at one end by the closed border crossing and start along a track towards the grove. 5 or 10 minutes pass and the atmosphere is a living contrast, an enjoyable countryside silence, birds tweeting and children playing though it is interrupted with the occasional drone of distant gunfire and menacing explosions. One of the most militarised and dangerous areas in the world lies just over the border, easily within walking distance yet the place still holds a beauty that even now I can’t quite put my finger on.
As I near Mohammed’s yard my attention is drawn to two headlights, “I think that car’s coming right for us” I say, but one of my friends dismisses this “No, it’s just following the border, don’t worry”. Twenty seconds later and my fears were realised. The car, or what we now see to be a small truck, is hurtling towards us.
At about 100 meters away the horns start honking with a state of alarm. Butterflies appear in my stomach as the vehicle slams on its brakes, skidding forwards over the dust alongside us, these guys clearly aren’t asking for directions, something’s not right.
3 Jordanian soldiers hop out, “What are we doing here?, Who are we?” the questions are coming faster than my mind can process them. Starting to get nervous, they demand we open our bags.
Unpacking our belongings all four of us tremble with fear, inspecting even the most seemingly innocent of objects with the sort of severity that makes even the most innocent start to tremble with guilt.
Upon spotting our cameras, the soldiers focus shifts entirely on them. Asking us why we had them and whether or not we had been taking photos of the border. Thankfully I had changed the memory card in my DSLR; instead of pictures from my previous trip to the same area it was full of holiday snaps. I turned my camera on fully expecting to have photos that they might have deemed forbidden on it, but on this chance my luck was in. Though I still maintain that I have absolutely no memory of changing that memory card.
After the camera check, the tension eased. One of the soldiers went off to radio somebody more senior and I opened a Kitkat and shared it round. No one took up my offer, so I was the only one eating which made me feel slightly guilty, but it was relaxing, a taste of the familiar goes a long way in such situations.
It was here that we played what I have always seen as the trump card for when you might be in trouble, talk about football. Everyone has an opinion, a favourite team or player. It’s a truly incredible thing, a global language. Uttering just one word is a friendly act like no other, it says I mean you no harm and can help relax even the most uptight of army privates on the night shift.
After a few minutes of chat and with the nerves cooled all round, the soldier who had been on the radio apologised and explained that due to “protocol” he would have to take us to the very sinister sounding “company”. We hoped in the back of their truck and after a quick you turn we were hurtling towards the Syrian border. The line that demarcates the border is a 5 foot high mound of dirt, and here we were, in the company of the Jordanian army snaking our way alongside it.
After a few kilometers of zig-zaging around pot holes and our driver learning, the hard way, how a clutch works, we pulled into collection of cabins.
Heavily armed vehicles sat nearby, their 50. Cals seeming to sag with bordome. Whilst being guided into a small army hut I noticed several UNHCR buildings. This was evidently a stop on the long road for refugees fleeing Syria. One might even say that it was the front line of the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster.
We sat in this hut for around 3 hours, during which time all of our electronic items, wallets and passports were confiscated and bagged as evidence by an officer whose attitude suggested that he made a few bad choices as a teenager and was now locked into a job he hated. The same officer then went through our passports one by one, it took him a painful hour and a half to copy down four names, dates of birth and passports numbers. We looked on in frustration, though were joined by several more soldiers. Our arrest appeared some sort of novelty to them and they were all keen to come in and talk about football with us.
I spent a short while chatting with an army surgeon, still in his medical overalls he told me of his time spent studying in Damascus. Something which, when you consider that he now spends his days treating Syrian refugees, is a tragic sort of irony.
After 2 hours we were joined by two scrawny looking men. Clearly not from the army, I soon realised from the money and passports they had confiscated from them that they had just snuck over the border from Syria. The night these two gentlemen were about to have put my nerves and fears to shame, yet if they knew were aware of the treatment they would be given then they showed no fear, I found it remarkable was how relaxed they were.
Three hours passed and we were told that we would be given all of our stuff back and released by another office. So here we were again, hurtling along the border, with a bitter chill setting in, and the dim lights of Da’raa glowing in the explosive lit sky.
We made a pit-stop on the way, it was a military border crossing and the chaps there looked ready for war. A small hut lay by the side of the rode and the dirt mound had been expanded to block the border road. Behind it, on the Jordanian side were a dozen cement filled barrels. In the dark fluttered a lonely and isolated Syrian opposition flag. I could have hit it with a stone, it was that close. Two armed soldiers exited the small hut, both of them armed up to their necks in Kevlar and with loaded automatic rifles. I thought to myself of the bizarity of the situation, this whole arrest had taken us far closer to the border than we would have dared go on our own.
After our little pitstop to what seemed like the edge of the world (or should that be humanity?) we were back on track heading towards the office and a warm bed.
I tried to make conversation with the two Arab chaps but they were very vague, they mentioned something about having gone in through Turkey to see their family in Syria. I asked if they were rebels or in the Free Syrian Army and, as I had expected, they denied being so. They didn’t look like fighters, weak and tired, two guys just down on their luck.
The next building we pulled in at was what looked like a police station, on entry to the building compound we were greeted by several heavily armed soldiers one of whom had half a dozen plastic handcuffs tucked under his arm. The soldiers told us to get out and led us into small out-building.
As we entered the building one of the soldiers pushed me, and in a testosterone fuelled moment of stupidity I turned around, glared at him and said “Khallas”. Surprisingly it worked and he backed off though it’s not something I would have recommended, he could just as easily have used his rifle-but creatively.
Myself and the 3 other Brits were led to the right and the two Jordanians into a room on the left. I did what I had been told to do, I sat down and opened my bag for it to be searched, again. I glanced across the hallway and the two Jordanians had been handcuffed and were being lead out blindfolded. It shook me, now I was expecting the four of us to get the same treatment.
A more senior looking man in army uniform then entered and asked which of us spoke the best Arabic.
A bit my tongue here, though my friend volunteered himself and he was taken outside. I hadn’t been keen on the idea of us being split up, but there was little I could do. We sat and waited for another few hours, interrupting the silence only to check up on one another’s nerves to crack the odd joke about how good a dinner party story this might one day make. The hours passed and the experience was already beginning to take its toll. I was exhausted, and a power hungry soldier’s demands to search my bag for what must have been the 8th times had pissed me off.
At long last came footsteps down the hallway, the door jolted open to reveal a rather stout but senior looking officer.