Zaatari, Asharq Al-Awsat—The old woman, referred to as Warda, is too scared to say her real name. She dries her eyes and draws her finger across her throat, acting out what she fears will happen to the relatives she left behind if anyone from the regime sees her name in the news.
Warda’s fear is justified because that is how her brother died alongside dozens of others in Tafas, the Syrian village she fled. Sitting in a small tent in the Zaatari refugee camp, 15km inside the Jordanian border, she tells her story.
“In my neighborhood only ten houses remain standing,” she says. “The Shabiha came, and anything they liked they took for themselves. My brother had a lot of money, and they took it and then they slit his throat. They cut up our family’s degree certificates, and finally they burned our home with my brother’s body still inside. As they left the wrote on the walls of the remaining houses: ‘Only Assad, or we burn.’”
Warda fled south from Tafas and crossed the border into Jordan. Her daughter came with her, but she didn’t make it to the camp. Assad’s soldiers turned her 15 year old son back saying that men are not permitted to leave the country, and she chose to stay there with him.
Warda’s eyes fill with tears once again. “It’s been four months since I saw my daughter.”
On this side of the border Warda has become a statistic. She is one of tens of thousands of Syrians in Zaatari, all with stories of terror and destruction behind them. There are families in every corner of the camp from Homs, Daraa, and the suburbs of Damascus. Their stories all echo Warda’s; they speak of regime bombing, day and night, followed by house to house calls from Assad’s militia. Not even those resilient enough to stay in their homes as the bombs fall will hang around once the Shabiha have called.
Warda shares her tent—two rooms of three meters square, and emblazoned like all the others with the blue logo of the UNHCR—with her nephew Abu Omar, his wife Roula, and their three children. As they speak and drink tea, their eldest son whirrs a piece of foam from a destroyed mattress above his head.
“He’s pretending it’s an airplane,” Abu Omar says.
The skies loom large in the imaginations of all the children in Zaatari. “The children went crazy when the bombing started,” says Roula. “Now, every time they see a plane they start screaming. Our youngest son has started wetting himself.”
Abu Omar reveals that if it wasn’t for his children, he and his wife would have stayed in their home in Syria. It is a refrain that is heard again and again: the children are traumatized, so the families flee. “The bombs came nearer and nearer, and then one hit our home,” says Abu Omar. “We left with nothing, just a small bag of things for our children.”
So the camp has become a nightmarish playground. Children are everywhere in Zaatari, the younger ones sitting wide-eyed inside the tents, the older ones boisterous and rowdy in the streets outside. They have plenty of friends here but little to do. Without toys they play with lighters, or jump onto the back of moving trucks. Abu Omar and Roula fear for them.
“They’re making friends but not in a safe way,” Roula says. “We don’t want them to learn bad morals.”
Khalil, a teacher from Daraa who now works at the only school in the camp, says that it is hard to motivate the children to learn.
“All the fun parts of learning have gone,” he says. “They learn Arabic and maths but there are no resources to teach them anything else. No art, or music, or sport. And for two years in Syria many schools have been closed. The regime has turned them into prisons.”
In Zaatari’s material hierarchy Warda and her family are somewhere near the top: most of the families are squeezing twenty people or more into a single tent. But their relative comfort did not afford them any advantages when the rain and snow arrived two months ago. The weather – the worst the region has seen in years – was a leveler. Tents across the camp flooded, and Warda and her family slept on mattresses soaked in water for ten days.
“The water came inside the tent so we put groundsheets down. We made a tunnel to take the water out, but it still came in. We asked the UN for a new tent but they couldn’t give us one, and we all caught influenza.”
Zaatari’s location, on a wide desert plain, means that it has two seasons: muddy and dusty. Now that the rains are subsiding it is reverting to the latter. The road leading into the camp is punctuated by huge construction trucks bringing stones to trap the dust. But they are never enough, because as soon as one road has been graveled, another road springs up.
Zaatari’s population is growing at a hyperbolic rate. Five thousand new people arrive every night, and both the camp and the UN personnel working within it are overwhelmed. Warda and her family waited for two weeks to receive a tent of their own; in the interim they slept on the floor of one of the huge communal greeting tents at the camp’s entrance.
Fadi, a Syrian opposition activist, reveals that there are just seven UN staff in Zaatari to conduct the necessary interviews with the thousands of refugees who arrive there. “The interviews are important, and they have to be done properly so that we can gather evidence about what’s happening inside Syria,” he explains. “On normal days they can deal with the workload, but now every day is an emergency.” In our six hours at the camp we see plenty of Jordanian riot police and soldiers, but not a single member of UN staff.
Food, medicine, and blankets—already in short supply—are also spread ever thinner between Zaatari’s growing population. The families here used to be given two cooked meals a day, but now they are handed tinned food to cook inside their tents. Warda tells me that they get the basics—rice, olive oil, tea—but no fresh fruit or vegetables.
On the drive to Zaatari from Amman there are countless trucks piled with aid. “The Jordanians are usually very sympathetic to the Syrian refugees,” Fadi says, “but there is still not enough food or blankets for the camp. As soon as an aid truck stops inside the camp it’s immediately surrounded by five hundred to a thousand people, and riots break out. The only way to stop this is for the volunteers to go from tent to tent handing out the supplies.”
Yet in the harshness of Zaatari, where the people survive but their lives are suspended, there are some semblances of normality. The people living here make sense of the hugeness of the camp by arranging the identical tents into streets, and then dividing those streets into squares. Each street is named for its number; there are seventeen in total, and Abu Omar remarks that newcomers routinely get lost. “If that happens they go to the mosque, and the Imam puts out a message for their family to come and collect them.”
At the center of the camp the heaving main street is lined with makeshift shops selling all the things that the UN and charity can’t provide. There are coffee stalls, fruit sellers, and mobile phone shops. Dayaa, a barber from Daraa who came to the camp a month ago with his wife and two-month-old daughter, works in a six foot square shack built from corrugated iron. He has set up a barber’s shop and is serving his third customer of the day.
“This is my life,” he says. “I had my own shop in Daraa, and now I have one in Zaatari.”
He paid SYP 5,000 for his premises, and charges SYP 150 for a haircut and shave. Business, he says, is good.
But underneath this veneer of normal life lies a pall of terror. Everyone whispers of Assad’s supporters, and even Shabiha, coming into the camp.
“We heard that Assad’s men came here last month and tried to poison one of the water tanks,” says Abu Omar. “The police caught them and sent them back to Syria. And in another camp the Shabiha set fire to a tent, with the family all inside. We live in fear that this will happen to us.”
These rumors are psychological weapons. Few adults want to be photographed, fearful of the consequences should they be seen by the regime. “Assad still exists here,” Roula expresses with fear. But she is also terrified that there will be an air attack on the camp. “Assad is crazy,” she remarks, “We are so close to the border that he could bomb the camp at any time.”
Roula’s fears are grounded in tangible fact. Circling Zaatari searching for a high point from which to judge the scale of the camp, a local taxi driver reveals where rockets from inside Syria landed two weeks ago. The first few roads are blocked by the Jordanian army, but after 30 minutes drive one comes across yellow tape bearing warnings of explosives, piping the edges of recently filled craters. This is just 1km away from the camp. Should a rocket land inside its boundaries, the destruction it will wreak will be catastrophic.
Zaatari’s stresses fall heaviest on the women. Many come here alone while their husbands stay inside Syria, fighting with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or protecting whatever home they have left. Roula’s cousin was widowed in the cruelest way—her husband went back into Syria to get medicines that are impossible to find in the camp. “He left two weeks ago, and no-one has heard from him since. We know that he’s dead,” she says.
And this is no place for lone women. Everyone here is mixed in together: families, single women, and single men. “If a woman doesn’t have a husband she’s not safe in the camp,” says Roula. “If I want to go to the bathroom at night I won’t go without my husband. It’s not safe.”
The people of Zaatari have traded one kind of insecurity for another. The terror of air attacks and Shabiha still casts a shadow, and the fragile protection that the tents and barbed wire fences offer can be shattered all too easily, and too often.
For Warda, conditions inside Zaatari are worse than those inside Syria. “In Syria we are killed by bombs,” she says, “but in Zaatari we die from the cold. The bathrooms and kitchens are crowded and unclean, and there is no privacy or dignity.”
And so, despite everything she fled from in Tafas, Warda’s only wish is to return there. “The houses are gone, the farms produce nothing. But every day I dream of going home. I am ready to die.”
The rain begins to fall once again in Zaatari. A grey sky hangs heavy across the vista of tents, and a queue is building at the entrance gate. The first of the next 5,000 are arriving, to be greeted by riot police and a cardboard box of basic supplies. And the dust turns to mud once again.