“I brought my children here to protect them from the Shabiha,” he said. “Everyone in this camp has done the same. Here my family is safe. At home they could be killed. When I can I will go back to Syria to fight.”
The camp is a bleak tent city on a hot, barren plain in the desert a few miles south of the Syrian border, built in August for 100 families. Now 36,000 refugees are crammed behind its barbed wire fence, and the United Nations expects the population to increase to 80,000 by the end of the year. By then the total number of Syrian refugees in Jordan is expected to more than double to 250,000, putting great strain on the nation of 6.5 million which is already home to huge populations of Iraqis and Palestinians who fled from earlier wars.
Some 500 more Syrians turn up every day at Zaatari, exhausted, hungry, penniless, and with tales of bombings, shellings and atrocities. Aid workers and Jordanian officials fear that far more will arrive as the exodus from Syria swells, especially since Turkey restricted Syrians trying to escape across its border.
Many of the families who spoke to The Sunday Telegraph said they it was the increasingly grave danger to their children that had finally led them to leave, often after enduring months of brutal repression.
Refugees told of children being used as human shields, children being murdered by Shia militia with swords, and boys being massacred by security forces frustrated because they couldn’t find their fathers. Teenage boys are at particular risk from regime killers who suspect they may soon join rebels.
“They kill our children to break our hearts,” said one grandmotherly woman in the tent next to Mr Shweti. Her husband, a farmer with a bristly grey moustache, his head covered with a red-checkered headscarf, nodded grimly in agreement. “It is like Bosnia now, with terrible slaughter,” he added.
Mr Shweti admitted that, even after months of violence, he had been shaken by what he had seen in his own village.
“The name of the boy who was killed was Ramadan. I remember him playing with my own sons. It was revenge by them because they couldn’t find his father, and an attempt to terrorise us all.”
Children in the camp are nearly all traumatised. One of Mr Shweti’s sons, a lively boy called Abdullah, 10, wakes up every night after screaming in his sleep. “Last night he was shouting ‘Get them away from me’,” Mr Shweti said.
Boys at or near military conscription age are a particular worry for their families. Before, they would hide at home instead of answering the summons to report to army barracks.
“Everybody is getting their boys out if they are near the age for conscription,” said Abu Mohammed, 39 a carpenter. He didn’t want his two teenage sons to be forced to kill fellow Syrians. “Before, they were safe when we hid them at home. Not any more. Now the security forces search more thoroughly for them.”
He pulled up his shirt to show two bullet holes, from when he was used as a human shield by militia, he said.
Other refugees claimed the violence has got much worse in recent weeks as foreign mercenaries have appeared on the streets of their home towns and villages.
“I saw Iranians with the army in Damascus a month ago,” said Ahmad, 18. “They were devils. They killed a family by cutting their throats — a mother and father and three children, because they supported the rebels. I saw them dead in their house after the Iranians had been inside.”
He said they looked different to Syrians, with long beards, spoke Arabic with a strong accent, and had ‘Ya Ali’ tattooed on their wrists, in tribute to Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed who is revered by Shias. Other refugees insisted they had seen Hezbollah fighters, from Lebanon, and Iraqi Shia militia.
Like almost every inhabitant of the refugee camp, Ahmad — who did not want to give his full name for fear of spies — is a Sunni, the majority community in Syria which has led the uprising against the rule of President Assad.
“When they go to houses the foreign mercenaries don’t talk to anybody. They burn buildings and steal,” he said. “For sure the killing is getting worse, especially since they arrived. It is 100 per cent a religious war now — the Shias have most of the weapons, and they are killing Sunnis and trying to force us out.”
The conditions in the camp where they flee are grim, the midday heat unbearable in flimsy tents. Sandstorms howl across the barren plain. Aid workers are becoming deeply concerned that the refugees are unprepared for the imminent winter. Soon night time temperatures will be well below freezing, and most of the refugees arrived with just the clothes they fled in — usually just a T-shirt and jeans, or a summer dress.
Jordanian police had to fire tear gas into the camp last week when furious refugees started a riot because of their living conditions, setting fire to tents and vehicles. Once they are in, Syrians are not allowed to leave. So harsh are conditions in the camp that every night about 100 break out through the barbed wire fence, many returning to take their chances in Syria.
Refugees have adequate food, with handouts of groceries and communal kitchens now set up, and some cook for themselves. Latrines and showers are crowded and basic, and refugees complain the camp is full of regime informers. Jordanian police keep a rough and ready order, although their main job seems to be to stop refugees getting out.
Aid workers from the United Nations and other agencies privately admit that the scramble to prepare a camp as refugees flooded in has been difficult, and they fear that there is not enough funding yet to prepare for winter. Foreign donors have not been generous so far, although Morocco has set up medical facilities and Britain has been praised for providing crucial funding for the camp out of £18 million for Syrian refugees.
“When it becomes cold and starts to snow and rain it is going to be horrible in there,” said one aid worker. “It’s not the worst refugee camp I’ve ever seen but it is going to be a miserable winter for people who have lost everything.”
Many of the refugees are tough Bedouin who can cope with adversity, but there are also city people who will find the conditions a terrible shock: one woman in a tent was wearing expensive sunglasses and had a fashionable handbag, all that is left of the comfortable life she lived until a few weeks ago.
At least communal kitchens are being set up where the women can cook rice, beans, and a bit of meat; there were complaints that emergency ration packs of chicken and rice were inedible.
A million litres of water are being brought in by a fleet of lorries daily, but the operation is expensive and 400 metre deep wells are now being dug – an indication that the authorities believe the camp may become semi-permanent.
One refugee complained that Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN envoy for Syria, visited Zaatari by helicopter but spent little time with its inmates – some of whom held a demonstration complaining that his attempt to broker a peace deal made him a stooge of the regime. “He went straight to the United Nations people. He didn’t come to speak to us or hear our complaints,” the man said.
Last month bedraggled refugees crossing the border from war-torn Syria at night were greeted by the startling and far more glamorous sight of Angelina Jolie, the actress, who was on a tour of the Middle East to bring attention to the plight of refugees from Assad’s regime. At least she was trying.
“Nobody cares about us,” said Abu Iyad, an unshaven man in his thirties wearing a tattered T-shirt. One of his sons was killed last week. “Until the world helps us our suffering will go on.”
Source: The Telegraph