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.