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Refugees Flee As Syria Targets Rebel Stronghold Daraa


In Syria, one of the last rebel strongholds in the country is under siege. Daraa is where, seven years ago, schoolboys were arrested for painting anti-government graffiti on their school's wall. The incident sparked nationwide protests that eventually led to Syria's civil war. Now government forces are fighting to retake Daraa and the surrounding area. Negotiations are underway to let the government move in.


And meantime, civilians have been streaming out, trying to escape, many of them heading towards the border with Jordan. And that is where we reached Rachel Sider. She is with the Norwegian Refugee Council, which is monitoring the situation, advocating for refugees. I asked her what she knows about the thousands and thousands of people displaced by the fighting.

RACHEL SIDER: This is the largest displacement - single displacement that we've seen since the start of the war. They've been on the move now for several days. And they're reaching places that are experiencing serious shortages of fuel, flour, even clean water. They're hungry. They're thirsty. Many of them have been sheltering in the open air for prolonged periods of time. Many of them have brought their children but little more than a pack of food and some basic items to get them through the next couple of days. And they're very scared.

KELLY: Yeah. The city of Daraa is in southern Syria. As people leave, they're heading farther south, trying to get across the border with Jordan. That border is closed. They're not being allowed in. Why not?

SIDER: That's right. The Jordan border has been closed now for two years after an attack on the border that resulted in a number of armed-force deaths. And what we're doing now is we're appealing to the Jordan government once again to allow safe refuge for those that are still sheltering at its borders. But we can't expect Jordan to take on new refugees alone. And that's why we're also appealing to the international community to step up and to provide substantial support to the government of Jordan to support in accommodating a potential new wave of refugees.

KELLY: Just to pause and take note of the truly bleak situation you're describing for people still inside Syria, you're describing a mass movement of people set against the context of years of displacement and civil war already, shortage of clean water, shortage of clean food. And for the moment, borders are closed. There's nowhere for these people to go.

SIDER: Exactly. And the concern is that not only are things dire right now, but we expect that they will rapidly deteriorate in coming days. Aid agencies and the U.N. have not been able to deliver supplies through the border for over 10 days now.

KELLY: You're saying you have supplies, but you and other aid groups have no way of getting them across to the Syrian side of the border.

SIDER: Correct. There are dozens of trucks right now that have been loaded at the border with Jordan that have been unable to cross for many days now.

KELLY: It's also striking to hear you describe this as the worst humanitarian situation you've seen. I say that because we have tracked so many of them. Is there one particular story that will stay with you of these people?

SIDER: We've been in touch with local responders, one of whom told me that he received a call from a woman who was about to give birth. And she was sprawled out on a mattress under the scorching sun in a makeshift shelter. And she was calling out for water because they hadn't had access to safe or clean water for a number of days. And she told him that she was scared for her life. And she feared this would be her last phone call to those that she loved.

She ended up giving birth safely, thank goodness. But this, again, was under very un-ideal circumstances and within kilometers of Jordanian hospitals that would have been able to provide the medical care that she was in desperate need of.

KELLY: Rachel Sider of the Norwegian Refugee Council speaking to us via Skype from Amman, Jordan, thanks so much.

SIDER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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