Theater of Cruelty

The refugee camp that became a city

The Jordanian refugee camp Zaatari huser 87 Syrians. None of them want to go home. Syria lacks even the most basic infrastructure, and most Syrians are terrified of retaliation.



The war in Syria is almost over. Admittedly, the peace talks got stuck, that is so, but basically the war is over because Assad won. Last July, his army also recaptured Daraa, the city where the revolution broke out. And in October, the border was opened to Jordan, a few miles away, so the refugees could return. In Jordan, the Syrians number about 1,2 millions. So far, only 161 of them have gone home.

The world's seventh largest refugee camp

Matteo Paoltroni

Every weekend, hundreds of cars wait in line at al-Nasib, the main border crossing. But everyone in the cars is Jordanian; they just cross the line to shop for cheap money. They are an optical illusion, as statistical studies also deceive. During 2017, 721 Syrians returned home – 000 internally displaced persons from other parts of the country and 655 refugees from abroad. But for every Syrian who returned home, there were three others who fled. With its 000 inhabitants, it is the world's seventh largest refugee camp. It was established in 66. Six years later, it looks more like a city than a refugee camp – with a grid of identical gray containers and gravel roads in between, it is reminiscent of the Syrian countryside. At the entrance there is a checkpoint, but also racks for the bikes that were given as a gift from the Netherlands. And journalists from all over the world travel around to report on the countless projects of voluntary organizations, which here are at their best: Zaatari is even powered by solar energy.

Zataari Camp

The place has nothing in common with the endless rows of tents and tarpaulins from the early days, when the camp had a population of 150, and exhausted children stared at you while they chewed cardboard to stave off hunger. Today it has 000 doctors' offices and 5 schools and even its own newspaper. The camp's 24 stores have a monthly turnover equivalent to $ 3000 million. Along the main street are bakeries, butcher shops, greengrocers, barbers, carpentry workshops and electrical shops. The Syrians have given it the nickname Shams-Élysées – in Arabic Shams means Syria. The street is a nice place to hang out and chat with people over a cup of tea, especially before winter sets in. In a couple of weeks, in February, the children here will be walking around in the same sandals, but wading in deep snow. It's also easy, so incredibly easy, to be deceived by the colorful wedding dresses on display in the shop windows, and forget that 13 percent of the brides who wear them will be bridesmaids. Sold to rich men in the Gulf states.

Zataari Camp

Each container has a satellite dish on the roof, and the roofs are covered with stone to prevent the wind from blowing them off. The really big step here was the indoor toilets. But when a refugee camp becomes a city, it becomes difficult to know what progress is and what is decaying. Zaatari is like scissors from George Orwell's lyrics.

Brutal reality

At a school that is impeccably run by the Norwegian foundation Refugee Aid, three fourteen-year-olds wait for their English lessons. They appear to be ten, in fact, not older. They are short-grown and thin, the result of a miserable and deficient existence. Because even though they are like any other teenager – a dreamer of studying astronomy, the second medicine, the third literature – they are all witnesses to a brutal reality. About Zaatari, they say, "Life is good, but you are getting sick all the time." Nothing.

Jordan is by far the country that treats the Syrians best. The authorities have warned of an imminent danger of societal collapse, but the Jordanians have nevertheless called for the borders to be kept open.

Ahmed is 23 and has a scar on his eyebrow, and no matter how carefully he avoids the subject, he is one of the young revolutionaries. He is from Homs, has worked in Lebanon; He returned to Syria in 2011. He belongs to the Tahrir generation, a generation that bravely embraced the Middle East. Now he's standing in front of you with his head lowered. About Zaatari, he says quietly: "Life is good. No one is shooting at you here. ”As if that is the only thing you can ask for as a 23-year-old, not to be killed.

Learning Center run by Norwegian Refugee Council. Peter Biro (photo)

Jordan is by far the country that deals best with the Syrians. And not just Syrians, for ten percent of the country's population are refugees. Before the Syrians arrived, the country opened the borders for Iraqis, and before the Iraqis came, for Palestinians. And no one had any problems with that – partly because refugees, with all the NGOs and the UN organizations that accompany them, are a good source of income and stimulate the economy. A voluntary organization like the Norwegian Refugee Council buys market goods worth $ 4 million a year. From Matteo Paoltroni, who works for the EU – which has spent 1,2 million since the beginning of the war – I learn that there are other and deeper motives. He points out that this is one of the cases where it seems positive that the borders in the Middle East are artificial. Not only all Arabs, but many of them are related between southern Syria and northern Jordan. And in addition to this comes moral reasons.

Possible collapse of society

During the last offensive in which the army attacked Daraa, Jordan decided to close the border. For fear of jihad infiltration and a new wave of refugees, the country is already spending $ 2,5 billion a year. Despite international support, foreign debt has doubled. Water consumption has increased by 40 per cent, and for the 83 per cent of Syrians living outside refugee camps, in urban areas, rental rates have increased by 300 per cent. The authorities have warned of an imminent danger of collapse in society, but the Jordanians have nevertheless asked that the borders be kept open. We don't care that they are poor, they say. We want to share what we have with the Syrians.

Zaatari camp – Peter Biro (photo)

But it's tough anyway. Abdul Kareem lives with his wife and children in Beit Ras, right on the border, in two dilapidated rooms, only equipped with a rusty TV, a rustic wardrobe and a rusty refrigerator. On the floor are a couple of blankets that are really old rags and blankets. They get $ 100 a month from the World Food Program, he says, nothing else. And as he talks, you realize that after six years you no longer have anything to ask the Syrians, and there is nothing new to hear. The only thing that exists is this stagnant time, here, in this home that really isn't even a home, by any means, it's just a haven for the rain, because there is no life inside, just these days passing by , all alike etc. "" Where are you in five years? "I ask Abdul Kareem, the war correspondent's standard question. "Only God knows," he replies – the refugee's standard response.

For every acid that returned home in 2017, there were three others who fled.

All he knows is that he has no regrets. He does not regret the revolution. "This is no life," he says, "but there was no life in Syria either." No one wants to go back. Not because of the bombings, but because of Assad. While the global community is repeatedly mulling over how things are improving in Syria, the NGOs are focusing more realistically, or perhaps more honestly, on integrating the Syrians into their host countries. Here, for example, they emphasize normalization. On identity cards and documents. Especially marriage certificates, which are rarely issued in Syria, but without them, the children can not get a birth certificate. Get enrolled in the school system. Get vaccines. Nothing.

Zaatari camp – women & girls safe space by UNFPA and IFH

Mercy Corps creates a Facebook page with all the necessary information, and with a lawyer who can answer further questions. Lowest possible expenses with the highest possible result, once again voluntary organizations at their best. And yet there is no way to fix it; it is a matter of politics. Ismail and Mohammed are in the Mercy Corps office to get some testimonials too, one being Christian and the other Muslim, a difference that does not stop them from being friends: They both hate Assad. They have both been jailed. They have both been tortured. They are both shattered by the war. You talk about documents, you talk about life here, about relief, whether it is adequate or not, but all the time they pull the conversation back to Assad. They want you to hear about Assad's abuse, not the bicycles the Netherlands has donated.

"A worthy homecoming"?

The NGOs, the UN organizations and the EU must all be careful what they say, yet there is nothing to deny. Especially since international law does not refer to repatriation, but to a "worthy return". A homecoming with dignity. While Syria lacks even the most basic infrastructure, and most Syrians are terrified of revenge. To withdraw, you not only have to cross a boundary, but undergo a settlement procedure. And you only have to come back if you declare that you will never speak out against the government again. The late General Issam Zahreddine made it clear that whatever the authorities decide, the army will neither forget nor forgive. But after all: go back where? In July, it was in theory a truce, but still Daraa was finally defeated, and Abdul Kerrem's house was destroyed. "Where should I go back to?" he asks. "In Syria, I myself would have been a refugee."

Francesca Borri
Francesca Borri
Borri is a war correspondent and writes regularly for Ny Tid.

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