AZRAQ, Jordan — In a barren patch of the Jordanian desert, Syrian refugee Abu Mohammad, a pseudonym, lit a cigarette inside a square metal shelter that serves as home these days, lowered his gaze and started talking about what led him here. He and the rest of the refugees interviewed requested that their names be changed for fear of reprisals against relatives still in Syria.
It began over a year ago in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa with black-clad men bearing black flags and accents he did not recognize. Months passed as Islamic State (IS) militants tightened their chokehold on the city along the Euphrates River, soon declaring it the capital of their caliphate, a territory that also spans large swaths of Iraq. Abu Mohammad watched the transformation in agony.
“Women must wear black and be fully covered in Raqqa. If [IS fighters] saw you on the street at prayer times, they would place you in confinement for three days where they would re-teach you how to pray,” Abu Mohammad told Al-Monitor at Jordan’s Azraq refugee camp, some 100 km (62 miles) east of the capital Amman.
Daily restrictions were followed by tighter control and more violence.
“Violating any of their established rules, like skipping fasting in Ramadan or selling alcohol, leads to whipping. Corporal punishment and execution are also practiced. If you got caught dealing drugs, for instance, you would be executed. ‘Prosperity Rotary’ in Raqqa is now dubbed ‘Rotary of heads’ because the militants impale heads of the people they kill on poles, especially regime soldiers,” he added.
In early September, Abu Mohammad crossed the border with his wife, mother and children following air strikes conducted by forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad that pelted IS territory during their late August takeover of the Tabaqa Military Airport near Raqqa.
“IS struck the airport and then the regime attacked civilians. Both parts showed no mercy. I left on the third day of the attack. The children were afraid; they screamed throughout the shelling and clashes and many people died. This was the last straw that convinced us to flee,” he said.
They walked day and night down dirt tracks in the Syrian desert close to the Iraqi border to avoid checkpoints. Government aircraft hovered above. Stopping was not an option.
They eventually ended up in a camp sprawling over 15 square kilometers (9 square miles) that opened last April to ease the pressure on the bursting Zaatari camp, the country’s main one that currently hosts around 80,000 refugees and is among the world’s largest, according to Gavin White, external relations officer at Zaatari.
While the majority of the kingdom’s refugees used to come from cities just across the Jordanian border like Daraa, Azraq’s demographics have recently started shifting, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees' senior field coordinator Bernadette Castel-Hollingsworth told Al-Monitor.
“Since August, we have seen larger numbers of arrivals from northern Syria, where the IS insurgency is ongoing. We witnessed a major change in the number of arrivals from Raqqa and Aleppo governorates, which makes up 34% of the Azraq camp’s 14,000 population,” she said.
IS fighters in Syria are mostly foreigners, according to Abu Moahammad. Militants, both men and women, patrol the city brandishing Kalashnikovs.
The same applies to the countryside east of Aleppo, one of the main IS bases in Syria.
“Most of the IS jihadists are foreigners in their 30s and 40s,” Abu Amjad, from the outskirts of Aleppo, told Al-Monitor.
“We do not know who these people are. I would say 80% of the IS fighters come from abroad like Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Afghanistan, East Asia, and a large number from Chechnya. Many of them do not even speak Arabic. No one among my friends and acquaintances have joined IS,” he added.
Bunching the fabric of his traditional ankle-length robe with tight fists, Abu Amjad recounted scenes from towns void of movement and music, where everyone is scared. The situation, he said, is only becoming bleaker.
“At first, IS fighters were a little bit loose, but then, they showed themselves for what they truly are: extremists. They go around prohibiting everything, pressuring people, suffocating them. Children are forced to study new curricula focused on religion and teachers have to abide by these programs. This is why we escaped. Life has become impossible,” he said.
According to Abu Amjad, one such policy is "zakat," an Islamic taxation practice designed to collect extra income from the wealthy and redistribute it to the poor. But only those who pledged allegiance to the caliphate benefit.
“What one reads in the news is false. IS gives neither money nor jobs to people; they only do if one joins it,” Abu Amjad said.
Many of the refugees interviewed laid blame on both IS and Assad for the country’s dire situation. But while the militants have seized their hometowns and imposed rigid rules based on medieval Sunni Muslim precepts, some still see the government as the main source of their suffering.
Abu Khaled, a father of three from Aleppo’s countryside who used to work in construction, said that IS militants would not bother anyone unless their rules were violated, contrary to Assad’s forces.
“I don’t have any problem with IS. If you’re not guilty, the fighters would not even talk to you. They also keep the prices low amid the conflict. But the regime, whether there’s something against you or not, it would kill you,” he said between puffs of a cigarette that would endanger him back in the caliphate.
“Some of my friends began working with IS, just to get money so they can provide for their families. Salary is about $200. IS are the ones who have weapons and are numerous, so one has to go by that. They are strong, and people are forced to obey,” he said.
Scores of men wearing black pants to their ankles and a dress to their knees dot the streets in Aleppo’s outskirts, carrying a knife on one side, a weapon on their shoulders and in some cases, explosive belts, Abu Khaled said.
Between the looming threat of government airstrikes, the power struggle among militant groups and the newly international airstrikes, the Syrians’ urge to flee their country is pressing.
Since joining the US-led coalition of Arab countries against IS militants in September, Jordan has further boosted surveillance on its northern border amid security concerns, slowing the refugee influx dramatically.
The border between Jordan and Syria remains open, according to Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad al-Momani. But the number of refugees entering the kingdom in recent days has plunged to an average of 60 a day, a sharp contrast to the daily average of a few hundred since the beginning of the year.
Jordan has so far given sanctuary to some 620,000 of the over 3 million Syrians who have fled their country since the onset of the conflict in March 2011, UN figures show.
“The number of refugees crossing depends on the security situation on the ground and the fighting going on the other side of the border. Priority is given to women, children and the elderly,” Momani said.
Despite government claims, reports published earlier in October said that Jordan is refusing to let Syrian refugees cross the border.
The discrepancy has baffled recent refugees, who say thousands more await refuge.
“The border should remain open,” Abu Laith from Aleppo, a three-month resident at Azraq, told Al-Monitor. “There are women and children waiting to enter the country and they must be granted access. People are sick. On the Jordanian side, they give us food and water, it is a safe haven. We must be granted the chance to escape the evils dooming our country.”