RAMTHA, Jordan – The Facebook revolution has retreated from this dusty Jordanian town on the Syrian border.
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In a bid to quash a rebellion now entering its third month, the Syrian government, perhaps one of the world’s most Internet-unfriendly, has shut down pretty much all electronic communications inside the country and to overseas. Cut off from the World Wide Web, protesters, journalists and human rights activists have resorted to communications networks from another era.
And for that, Ramtha, a Jordanian town of about 100,000 people 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital of Amman, has become a virtual switchboard for news coming out of Syria, not to mention a swarm of refugees seeking to flee the carnage that has taken some 800 lives across the country, according to a United Nations estimate released last Friday.
Facebook and other social media have been widely lauded as the fuse that lit the unrest exploding across the Arab world. But Internet use in Syria has always been severely constrained and the number of people with access to it is very small – about 17% of the country had it in 2010, according to Internet World Stats – even if the government dropped its long-standing ban of Facebook weeks before the unrest broke out.
Just across the border from Ramtha, the Syrian town of Dara’a is the birthplace of the Syrian rebellion that began in mid-March when dozens or more youths were detained by security forces for spraying anti-government graffiti. Since then, despite the massive presence of troops and attacks on the city’s main mosque, Dara’a remains in turmoil.
To get the news out, activists have been smuggling videos to Jordan through the desert and across a nearly 80-kilometer border Jordan shares with Syria. Some risk approaching the border with Jordanian cellphones to report to the outside world and send clips. It’s a dangerous task because the Syrian and Jordanian armies traditionally have the area under heavy surveillance to prevent the smuggling of drugs and weapons into the kingdom or further to the Gulf states.
But desperate Syrians have been using a helping hand from smugglers to cross the border, either by walking or on the backs of donkeys, according to residents from Ramtha. Locals have centuries if not millennia of experience eluding officials.
“The two cities are connected more than anyone could think. For hundreds of years, the residents of Ramtha and Dara’a have been moving between the two towns easily through the farms and desert area. Now they rediscovered these ancient routes,” says Ahmed Kareem, a Jordanian taxi driver from Ramtha.
Kareem says several Syrian families escaped the wrath of the military by walking for nearly 24 hours before they were received by residents from Ramtha. The majority are being housed in a public school for the sake of their safety, and away from prying eyes of the media.
“We prepared the schools to welcome as many refugees as possible, but the problem is that many want to come but are unable due to the closure,” said Kareem.
Syria says it has been forced to close the border to prevent foreign elements, who it has blamed for inciting violence, from infiltrating into its territory. Syrian officials indirectly accused Jordan of facilitating entry of foreign elements to stir the public against Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Syria also accused Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood movement of coordinating with its Syrian counterpart to topple the Assad regime.
Those allegations have yet to be proven, but the closure limits the flow of news about what has been taking place in Dara’a, said Abu Abdullah, a Syrian rights activist who spoke to the Media Line by telephone from the city.
Syria refuses to allow foreign press into its territories, while those who leave refuse to go on camera for fear of retribution. Last month a Reuters correspondent was arrested after he was found covering the uprising in Dara’a. Dorothy Parvaz, an Al-Jazeera television correspondent, was detained by Syrian authorities and has since reportedly been transferred to Iran.
As a result, scores of journalists have flocked to the border point near Ramtha in the hope of catching news on the military operation taking place. But it is not proving to be easy, according to journalist stationed near Jordan’s border point.
Syrian activists who try to reach the outside world take a serious risk. Abu Abdullah, who asked not to be identified by his real name, uses a Jordanian mobile number to place calls, but to do so he has to get close to the Jordanian border at the risk of getting killed. Among the Jordanian cellular operators, activists say Umnia has the best reception in Dara’a.
“As I talk, people are trying to protect me from snipers by holding barrels and other items. This is very dangerous. We are unable to tell the world what is happening,” Abdullah said last week as he gave an account of an attack on civilians, including women and children.
“As I walked to this spot, I saw three people dead -- a woman, a man and a girl. Nobody was able to save them because of the snipers stationed on rooftops,” he said.
Activists in Jordan say Syria has arrested a number of Jordanians as they tried to cross into its territories through the regular border crossings. Abdullah Zubi, a Jordanian driver arrested three weeks ago on the border, says Syrian police had one idea about the events.
“They asked me to confess that Jordan’s intelligence service is behind
the attacks. They prepared a confession about the role of Jordan’s
secret service and wanted me to sign it,” he told The Media Line a day
after he was released on May 11.
According to Zubi, Syria has arrested dozens of Jordanians during the past weeks as part of its crackdown on Dara’a.
Ramtha residents are concerned that the crisis will have severe economic
implications for a city reliant on trade. Ramtha sees dozens of
vehicles crossing into Syria or coming into the kingdom laden with goods
heading to the kingdom’s market or to the oil rich Gulf states. The
border crossing has helped thousands of Jordanians make a living.
But since Syria sealed the border with Ramtha, the city’s streets are
void of traffic. It’s a double-blow for Ramtha residents, who are also
feeling the impact of higher food and energy prices and a slowing
Many residents say they will have to look some where else to earn a
living. For a start, this week, the government has now allowed taxi
drivers from Ramtha to operate in other routes in light of continued
closure of the borders.