The road to Deraa runs through flat, velvet-green fields and abandoned villages, where houses stare through black, blank windows. Sheep graze lazily in the sun in vineyards shorn of vines. Tiny orange and black “painted lady” butterflies flutter on the breeze.
Once a rich agricultural area, Deraa province is now poor in both crops and people. Dubbed the “capital of the revolution” since Syria’s 2011 Arab Spring uprising began here, the province’s main city is battered but still functioning.
A German colleague who visited last September, three months after rebels and jihadis were driven from Deraa, says there are now many more people about. More shops are open. The Old City, where armed rebellion erupted amid protests, remains off-limits to outsiders.
Since the nearby Jordanian border opened last October, scores of Syrians who took refuge in Jordan have returned to Deraa
Deraa city is in the hands of the Syrian army. Soldiers camp out in the deserted villas of once-wealthy families and circulate in the streets. Russian troops patrol in armoured troop carriers flying their country’s red, white and blue flag. Residents carry on with daily rounds. Schools and government offices are open and small shops selling all manner of goods abound; unrest and war have not crushed the Syrian entrepreneurial spirit.
Since the nearby Jordanian border opened last October, scores of Syrians who took refuge in Jordan have returned to Deraa, while displaced families from elsewhere have flocked here. Bashar Shdeed of the department of public relations and development of the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Antioch says his organisation "helps anyone who is homeless, not just refugees. There are displaced around Deraa who want to return to their homes.
“Many fled when when bombs and mortars fell around them. During the past six years [relief agencies] have been under pressure to help all Syrians.”
His organisation, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the World Food Programme, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the Syrian Red Crescent have settled "tens of thousands of homeless people across Syria. Some live temporarily in flats and houses they do not own and will leave when owners seek to reclaim their property.
“Refugees returned after a year or two,” Shdeed says. “Even some who went to Europe came back . . . We supply blankets and warm clothes, items for the home. We put windows and doors in houses and provide simple medical aid. The ICRC provides food and school supplies. We give psychological help [for the traumatised] and follow up their initial treatment. Since schools stopped during the war, we arrange private lessons to help students pass exams.”
Operations are co-ordinated with municipalities and ministries. Shdeed, who remained here throughout the conflict, adds: “Before the war Deraa was rich, few people were in need. Deraa was a big village, I knew half the people. They belonged to big families. There were 600 Christian families then. Now there are 300.”
To the south, at the border with Jordan, we had expected lines of cars and lorries at the Nassib crossing, but there were only two family vehicles piled high with possessions and no lorries bringing imports. Instead there are two large buses with Saudi licence plates waiting for passengers to clear immigration.
They have arrived from Riyadh, the Saudi capital, en route to Damascus. The buses come twice a week and are expected to multiply after Ramadan begins in early May and many Syrians seek to celebrate with their families. The kingdom, which formerly supported jihadi groups, now helps Syrians to travel home permanently or for holidays.
Dasha Mohamed Sultan, a woman in a loose black Saudi traditional gown, her head covered and only her eyes visible, introduces her shy six-year-old daughter Shamough (Gloria), exhausted by the two-day journey. "The bus was fine. It cost only 200 riyals [€47]. They gave us juice, fruit and food. Last year I flew to Beirut and then went to Damascus by car. It cost too much."
Damascus has halted shipments of agricultural produce to Jordan as this depletes Syrian supplies and raises domestic prices
Her husband is a labourer working in Saudi Arabia, and a son is employed as an engineer in Syria's Latakia province. She will stay in the Roukn Ad-Din district of the capital until she returns to Riyadh, where she has lived for 15 years.
Although trade between Jordan and Syria was brisk after the border opened, it has dramatically fallen off since the beginning of the year. Jordanian firms have been warned off doing business with Syria due to sanctions. Damascus has halted shipments of agricultural produce to Jordan as this depletes Syrian supplies and raises domestic prices. Amman also limits the import of Syrian fruits and vegetables, which are cheaper than local produce.
There is no mass crossing of refugees. Syria cannot cope with a huge influx. There are still displaced people to settle.