Syria’s vicious civil war has killed over 90,000 people, and there is no reason to believe the carnage will stop anytime soon. Men, women, and children are routinely slaughtered through artillery shelling, aerial strikes, and mass executions.
While the U.S. government considers possible military intervention, including the provision of weapons to rebels and a no-fly zone, the humanitarian crisis the conflict has caused grows worse every day.
Apart from any military decisions made by the U.S. or the international community, the Syrian conflict has already gone cross-border. Approximately 1.6 million refugees have fled the conflagration inside Syria, and the single largest recipient of these impoverished and terrified masses is the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan- a country of only 6 million inhabitants.
To learn about the Syrian conflict and see firsthand how Jordan is handling such a massive influx of refugees, I traveled to the Zaatari refugee camp near the Syrian border.
Here is what I saw and learned of the Syrian war inside this deeply disturbing tent city in the desert:
As I passed this sign, my interpreter told me that the nearest town had been hit in the past with stray artillery. Trash lined both sides of the road — some blame the refugees for this, saying that they have caused a breakdown in services.
Welcome to Zaatari. When I took this photo, a security guard waving an AK-47 came running over to the car and wanted to confiscate my camera. He said he was concerned I was casing their security checkpoint. My Jordanian guide talked him down and we were allowed to proceed into the camp, camera intact.
With 120,000 inhabitants, Zaatari is already the second largest refugee camp in the world, and is on pace to be the largest by the end of 2013. The camp has already become the fourth largest city in Jordan. It opened in July of 2012 and is already massive.
You can see here that a few main roads run through the camp, and there is one road that circles it. But once you step away from those main arteries and enter the thicket of the seemingly endless tents and trailers, it is easy to become lost and disoriented.
I visited the camp during the hottest part of the day, so entire sections of it seemed deserted as families huddled under their tents to avoid oppressive heat. Temperatures in the summer easily break 100 degrees Fahrenheit and in the winter drop down significantly.
Many refugees refused to speak to me, or insisted I not film their faces. Most adults were terrified of reprisals from the Assad regime, either against themselves or families that were across the border in Syria.
One refugee told me not to film him, or his water bottle. When I asked him why, he told me that Assad troops recently caught a Sunni Arab family near the border. The father of the family denied that they had been to the camp, he said, but Assad’s troops saw his water bottle and decided it had come from the camp.
Based on this suspicion, he continued, Assad’s troops made the entire family lie face down in the dirt — including children — and then shot them all execution style.
It is horrific stories like this that terrify the refugees into staying where they are, despite the fact that all of them told me they want to return home to Syria as soon as possible.
I traveled inside the compound without any official escort or security. Nobody other than my translator knew where I was. I would not advise others do the same, especially females.
Much of the compound is open to the surrounding desert. On the perimeter there are armored personnel carriers with machine gunners observing from their hatches, and security guards patrol on the inside.
There have been outbreaks of violence and sexual assaults, and tensions will continue to rise as the camp becomes more crowded this summer and resources are strained.
There are also rumors of Assad agents infiltrating the camps to spread disinformation and keep track of those who flee. Given its proximity to the border, it seems likely that Assad has informants on the inside.
A Jordanian with knowledge of the camp offered me this bit of advice: “Stay away from the bearded men who stare at you. They are Salafis.” And of course, some are tied to Al Qaeda.
The UN Refugee Agency, known as UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees), is officially in charge of the Syrian refugees at Zaatari, though it works in close coordination with the Jordanian government. The cost of running the facility is currently around $1 million a day, and aid workers I spoke with said there is simply not enough money for the massive influx of refugees that could come if Damascus turns into a major battle area.
Basic healthcare is provided, and there are regular delegations of aid workers and NGOs who do what they can to alleviate suffering in the camps.
But in the blistering heat, without air conditioning or access to ice, refugees who have already suffered the terrors of war have no choice but to hope the squalor and frustration of the camps will come to an end soon.
Sadly, that is very unlikely to happen.
More than half of the population of Zaatari are children under the age of 18. Small children like this one often wander the camp alone.
The Saudi Coat of Arms adorns many caravans (trailers) in the camp. Gulf states like Saudi Arabia are sending substantial money and material to the camp. This comes alongside reporting that the Sunni Arab Gulf states are providing military assistance to anti-Assad forces, including Jihadists aligned with Al Qaeda. The Gulf states largely view the Syria conflict through a Sunni vs. Shia lens.
The flag of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is prominently displayed in many locations. All the refugees I spoke with want to return home as soon as possible — but only after the FSA defeats Assad. None of them believe a political settlement will happen, or if it does, that it will stop the violence.
The refugees strongly support the FSA. One boy about 12 years old told looked entirely calm as he told me, “They killed my mother, they assassinated my brother, but my father will still fight as part of the Free Syrian Army.”
Whole areas of the camp appear deserted in the noon-day sun.
The camp operates as a small city would, with business opening and marketplaces sprouting up in central locations. While it gives the refugees access to goods and a welcome distraction from their plight, many families I spoke to fled Syria with only the shirts on their backs, and have no money to spend inside the camp.
Refugees do have access to safe drinking water from UN stations like this one, though they often run dry and there is almost no refrigeration inside the camp.
Some refugees are much better off than others. Some of the trailers donated from the Gulf states have satellite TV. This disparity is a constant source of tension in the camp.
One family brought me inside their tent to show me how cramped and hot it was. This tent houses four people, and felt like an oven in the desert heat. The father who showed it to me teared up when he told me that he couldn’t afford meat or fruit for his family, and he is so despondent he is considering returning to Syria whether it is safe or not.
While adults were wary of a western visitor, the kids in the camp were all over the place, and they were very excited to have visitors. Lots of smiles and high fives.
It was an emotional day. The refugees have been through far too much sadness and tragedy. But the kids I met somehow maintained high spirits, and were inspirational in their toughness.
Whether the U.S. and the international community take direct action in Syria is a separate issue from helping camps like Zaatari.
If the U.N. and all western states are going to claim any humanitarian obligation, they will do more to help these refugees. The kids out there in the desert didn’t start this war, and they shouldn’t be left to fend for themselves.