A family from Dara’a, now living in a caravan in Zaatari. “Even the children have forgotten how to smile,” the woman remarked to me. (All photos: Max Blumenthal)
I sat inside a dimly lit, ramshackle trailer functioning as a general store for the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while a wiry, sad-eyed man named Adbel told me about the massacres that drove him from his hometown. Dragging deeply on a cigarette, Abdel described how army forces rained shells down on his neighborhood in Deir Ba’alba, a district in Homs, over five months ago, pounding the town over and over. Then he told me how government thugs barged into homes at 6 am, methodically slashing his neighbors to death with long knives, leaving fields irrigated with the blood of corpses, a nightmarish scene that looked much like this . Like nearly everyone I interviewed in the camp, he described his experience in clinical detail, with a flat tone and a blank expression, masking continuous trauma behind stoicism.
As Abdel mashed his cigarette into a tin ashtray and reached to light another, a woman appeared at the shop window with three young children. She said she had no money and had not been able to purchase baby formula for three days. She had trudged to hospitals across the camp seeking help and was turned away at each stop. Without hesitation, the shop owner, a burly middle-aged man also from Homs, pulled a can of formula off a shelf and handed it over to the woman. She made no promise to pay him back, and he did not ask for one. Like so many in the camp, she left Syria with nothing and now depends on the charity of others for her survival. In a human warehouse of 120,000, the fourth-largest population center in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world, where few can leave and even fewer are able to enter, the woman’s desperate existence was not an exception but the rule.
“We’re in a prison right now,” Abdel told me. “We can’t do anything. And the minute we try to have a small demonstration, even peacefully, [Jordanian soldiers] throw tear gas at us.”
“Guantánamo!” the shop owner bellows.
Water is available to camp residents primarily through these tanks, provided by international aid agencies.
None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad’s army. “With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god,” a woman from Dara’a in her early 60s told me. “His goal is to demolish our spirit so we will never rise up again.” The woman’s sons had spent four months under sustained torture for defecting to the Free Syrian Army. She does not know where they are now, only that they are back in the field, battling Assad’s forces in a grinding stalemate that has taken somewhere around 100,000 lives.
When news of the August 21 chemical attacks that left hundreds dead in the Ghouta region east of Damascus reached Zaatari, terror and dread spiked to unprecedented levels. Many residents repeated to me the rumors spreading through the camp that Bashar would douse them in sarin gas as soon as he crushed the last vestiges of internal resistance—a kind of genocidal victory celebration. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, however, a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.
“We follow the news minute by minute,” Abdel told me. “The whole camp’s opinion is in favor of a strike. Nobody wants the country to be hit. I swear we don’t like it. But with the kind of injustice we have seen, we just wish for the hit to put an end to the massacres. We feel strange because we’re wishing for something that we have never wished for before. But it’s the lesser of two evils.”
“Just do it, Obama! What are you waiting for?” an elderly woman in a tent on the other side of the camp remarked to me. “Hit him today and bring down the whole country—we have no problem with that. We just want to go back. Besides, the country is so destroyed, even if Obama’s strike destroys houses, we can rebuild them again.”
Mansour, a 7-year-old, was held at gunpoint by regime forces when his father was arrested. They were reunited in Zaatari, where Mansour is desperate to receive a caravan for his family.
Inside every canvas tent and corrugated tin caravan I visited across the gravelly wasteland of Zaatari, this is what residents told me: We have no future if Bashar is allowed to remain in power, and he is not going anywhere unless the United States intervenes. Like most Americans, I am staunchly against US strikes, mainly because I believe they could exacerbate an already horrific situation without altering the political reality in any meaningful way. The Obama administration has made clear that its “unbelievably small” strikes would not be not aimed at toppling Assad but only, as Obama said, to send a “shot across the bow.” However, I believe that the refugees trapped in Zaatari deserve to be heard. In the geopolitical chess match outside powers are waging over their country, their voices have been virtually ignored. Yet it is they who will have to face the direct consequences of any outcome of outside intervention.
When I asked the refugees of Zaatari about alternatives to US intervention like a massive international aid effort, or the Russian-brokered deal to confiscate the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons supply, I was immediately dismissed. “Just hit Assad and leave us to take care of ourselves!” a 65-year-old man from Dara’a snapped at me.
The only criticisms I heard about US intervention were directed at Obama for dithering and telegraphing his punches. The camp’s residents are in constant contact with friends and family from back home, and have been hearing reports of a mass movement of military equipment. A mother of three from the rural town of Salamieh who fled after a massacre in April told me a Syrian army commander recently promised her hometown aid and improved services if residents allowed him to stash a division of tanks inside its residential areas. “The [US] hit was so delayed that now all Bashar’s tanks have been moved into civilian areas and if they do hit the targets they’re all empty,” she complained.
All the cheerleading for intervention was not merely a product of practical interests; it was the reflection of fresh wounds, and not only the psychological kind. Besides the traumatic stress disorder that afflicted the entire camp, shrapnel scars pockmarked the bodies of many of residents, including children. Perhaps the only thing guarding Zaatari from slipping into an abyss of nihilism was the promise of return.
“When Bashar falls,” a rail-thin 12-year-old girl told me beside a row of tattered tents, “I am going to walk from here all the way back home to Syria.”
“In those sandals?” I asked, pointing to her flip-flops.
“No,” she replied emphatically. “I am going to return in my bare feet.”
In place of toilets, Zaatari residents are forced to dig ditches in the ground.
I was able to enter Zaatari thanks to a friend who, like the refugees inside the camp, asked not to be identified out of fear of imperiling family back in Syria. After a forty-five-minute drive northeast from Amman on a barren stretch of desert highway, we were near the Syrian border, and just south of Dara’a, the working-class city that gave birth to the Syrian revolution. By the road outside the camp, a line of refugees hawked third-hand merchandise; among them was a small boy in a tank top saturated in dirt trying to sell a single rusty hammer. At the gates of the camp, we rolled slowly through two checkpoints as processions of families squeezed beside our car, took a right turn, and parked at the western edge of Zaatari.
Nearby was a fenced off section reserved for the array of NGOs and foreign aid agencies stationed in the camp. It was the only place in Zaatari where I could find toilets or running water. From there, we walked along a dirt road beside the perimeter, past a Jordanian intelligence station on our right and a long row of trenches to our left, freshly dug by the military to prevent smuggling. The ditch offered a rare recreation space for a group of young boys, who took turns tumbling into it from atop a dirt mound. My friend recognized three of them from a visit to the camp a week ago, telling me how they lifted their shirts to show her the shrapnel scars decorating their torsos.
Finally, we were on the main road in the western section of the camp, a dust-choked pedestrian thoroughfare lined with makeshift shops. Behind a barbed wire fence surrounding a French military field hospital, a sign marked the road as AVENUE DES CHAMPS-ÉLYSÉES. An arrow on the sign pointed west and read, “Paris—3305 KM.” This is where the Zaatari’s first wave of residents set up camp over a year ago. Though the aid agencies have kept them in decent health, as I walked down narrow lanes flanked with UNHCR tents, residents emerged to show me the holes they have had to dig in place of toilets, and to complain about the food. “Everything is terrible here,” a man from Dara’a named Ayoub told me. “The grain they give us is the kind we used to throw out back in Syria.”
The Champs Élysées.
During the early days of Zaatari, coming and going was far easier for the refugees. But in recent months, the Jordanian military has established a virtual cordon sanitaire around the the camp, taking strict measures to keep residents inside and harrying those who attempted to escape into Jordan. Inside a caravan off the “Champs Élysées,” a group of women who fled Dara’a over eleven months ago told me their IDs had been seized by the military, effectively trapping them in the camp. Almost all of those I spoke to in Zaatari said they had not left their sunbaked confines since they arrived. And many told me that thanks to the military’s heavy hand, the flow of refugees into the camp had been reduced to a trickle, with thousands stuck on the border, including family members in dire health.
On the other side of the camp, where the newer arrivals live, conditions were perceptibly worse. “All of the people here are thieves,” a widow from Dara’a named Jamila complained to me. “It is the world of the most powerful, where all the weak get weeded out.”
Jamila fled five months ago from her town after regime forces killed four of her cousins. “They burned my house and I left with nothing but the clothes I’m wearing right now—with this same scarf on,” she told me. We sat on mats inside a cramped tent with two of her friends and six of their children. While Jamila poured me rounds of coffee into a small cup, she heaped curses on the self-appointed “street leaders” who took the caravans supplied by UNHCR and sold them back to residents for 200 dinars (around $280). When a snake attacked her inside her tent, she said she was forced to move in with her friends. “I’ve been dying from the heat here and they won’t give us a caravan,” she exclaimed. “I’m terrified here, I’m all alone. Why can’t I have a caravan?”
Walking east through Zaatari. The camp is vast—“a really big prison,” as one resident put it to me.
A 7-year-old boy with spiky, sandy blond hair named Mansour interrupted the interview several times to ask me for 200 dinars so his family could buy a caravan. The tin structure was the only thing that could provide them with a semblance of protection them from the ravages of their environment. Mansour’s mother complained that wild dogs had been attacking their family every night for the past two weeks, forcing her husband to forgo sleep to keep watch over the tent. Even with a Who’s Who of international aid groups encamped a few hundred yards away, adequate shelter has proven elusive for residents of Zaatari.
When I began to photograph the children in the tent, the women reflexively covered their faces with headscarves. “Look how afraid we are,” one of the women’s husbands grumbled to me.
The man had practiced law for twenty-five years in Dara’a, working with the government and supporting both Assads, Hafez and Bashar. But after the regime’s harvest of death visited his town, he was forced to switch sides. “For you,” he said to me in an eerily calm tone, “this is an adventure. You will hear our stories and then you’ll go back to your world. As for me, my whole future is destroyed. I left a good income and a good life to come here, and now I can’t even protect my own son from wild dogs.”
Winter was edging closer, and many in Zaatari were not sure how they would make it through. As the cruelty of camp life persisted and the United States hesitated, frustration mounted. “I give Obama and Kerry two options,” Abdel from Deir Ba’alba remarked to me. “Either bomb the regime or you can bomb Zaatari and get it over with for us. Just get it over with for us. We are dying slowly here.”