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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

At Syria border, Jordanians dash over for cheap shopping

A whole economy has sprang up again since the border began working

Bahaa Al Masri displays date-filled pastries and sesame biscuits he sells to Jordanians at the recently reopened Nassib border post in the Deraa province. AFP
Bahaa Al Masri displays date-filled pastries and sesame biscuits he sells to Jordanians at the recently reopened Nassib border post in the Deraa province. AFP

Near the recently reopened border with Jordan, former Syrian rebel fighter Bahaa Al Masri sells date-filled pastries and sesame biscuits to Jordanians flocking across the frontier in search of bargains.

Syrian regime forces retook control of the Nassib border crossing from rebels in July, and last month reopened it after a three-year closure.

A few hundred metres from the frontier,Mr Al Masri, 26, counts the boxes of biscuits he still has left in a plastic crate strapped to the back of his motorbike.

"For two weeks I have been bringing sweets from Damascus and selling them to Jordanians who come to buy them here because they're cheaper," says the ex-combatant.

"I sell 27 to 30 boxes a day."

Mr Al Masri hawks the pastries every day in a rest area on the edge of Syria's southern province of Deraa for three Jordanian dinars (Dh16) each.

"Thank God, when the border opened there was work again here, after I spent around six years without a job," Mr Al Masri says.

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Because money was tight, he joined a rebel group that paid him a monthly wage to fight.

"I picked up arms so we could eat and live," he says, with crates of green apples and oranges stacked behind him.

Deraa was once seen as the cradle of Syria's seven-year uprising but in July regime forces took back control through a military push and deals in which rebels surrendered.

Under those agreements, brokered by regime ally Russia, many fighters chose to leave with their families to remaining opposition areas in northern Syria.

But Mr Al Masri opted to stay and settled his status officially with the returning government authorities, a move likely to see him called up for military service.

Until the summons comes from the army, he is happy taking advantage of the moneymaking opportunities on offer now the border is open.

Also seeking to cash in are Jordanian drivers, jokingly dubbed "sailors", who ferry goods from Syria across the frontier for a small commission.

A whole economy has sprang up again since the border reopened.

At the crossing itself, cars sit side by side in several long queues waiting to cross into Syria.

Large lorries, some refrigerated, also wait their turn.

Before the war, "we used to come over to Syria every day — sometimes just to have breakfast", says Mohammed Sayes, 25, from Jordan's adjacent border town of Ramtha.

It was his second such trip since the border reopened "to see the sights, go out and eat" cheaply, he says.

"Yes, Syria lived through a war but we suffered a siege," says the specialist in tourism management.

"When the border reopened, it was like paradise opened up again."

Vehicles wait to cross at the recently reopened Nassib border post. AFP
Vehicles wait to cross at the recently reopened Nassib border post. AFP

Further up, dozens of people stand in line outside a row of small pre-fabricated buildings to have their Jordanian passports stamped by Syrian officials.

Jordanian driver Muflah Al Hurani, 53, is crossing the border to drive a family back home from the Syrian capital Damascus, about 100 kilometres to the north.

He has been going in and out of Syria on an almost daily basis since Nassib reopened, to transport passengers or shop for relatives.

"I bring back fruit and vegetables including potatoes, onions, garlic, as well as children's clothes made of cotton," he says.

"And I fill up my car with fuel. It's less than half the price [in Syria], despite the war."

Not far away, the former arrivals hall is being repaired after it was damaged in the war.

Workers carry away rubble and a rebel slogan is still visible.

Damascus hopes the reopening of Nassib will boost its war-ravaged economy.

Before the conflict, the crossing was a key trade route, linking Syria — but also Lebanon and Turkey — with Jordan and the Gulf beyond.

Syrian officials have registered more than 33,000 arrivals since October 15, against 29,000 departures.

Among those waiting to head across the border are also Syrians returning home, car roofs piled high with suitcases and blankets.

Last week, a Jordanian official said 6,000 Syrians had returned to their country, among them 517 registered refugees.

The head of the Nassib crossing Col Mazen Ghandour says the number of people heading into Syria is increasing daily, and that most of those coming are Jordanians.

"Most Jordanians come to shop and then go home," Col Ghandour says. "Others go to see Damascus."

A few metres away, a Syrian woman living in Jordan smiles as she waits to cross over with her family for a two-week visit.

"Damascus is a blessing. That's why everybody wants to visit after being cut off for so long," she says.