At the beginning of September, the UN announced that two million Syrians are now living under refugee status. That’s clearly a depressing statistic, and one that demonstrates just how important the refugee camps for Syria’s displaced have become.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited one of those camps – a temporary settlement of tin huts in Zataari, Jordan that’s home to an estimated 130,000 people, most of them from the Syrian city of Deraa – to speak to the victims of the world’s largest displacement crisis.
People in the Zataari camp try to go about their business with a degree of normality. But, unsurprisingly, as I walked around – past people shaving and topping up their mobile phones – I couldn’t ignore a sense of collective tragedy, something unavoidable when you group together thousands of people whose lives have been completely overturned.
￼While I was talking to some of the residents, a teenage boy who introduced himself as Mohammed asked me where my government was. I tried to explain that our Parliament voted against military intervention, but addressing whether or not Miliband had changed his mind just to screw over Cameron – or what the deal was with those MPs who “didn’t hear” when the vote was happening – began to feel like a bit of a cop out, particularly when the boy explained that his brother is currently fighting in Aleppo.
While Zataari is doing a good job of accommodating the swathes of refugees rushing out of Syria, it’s clear that the humanitarian assistance available still isn’t meeting the demand; reports suggest that as many as 40,000 Syrians fleeing the sites of chemical attacks are stranded in towns on the Syrian side of the border.
There are two main reasons credited for that statistic: Firstly, the risk of regime shelling turns the short crossing from border towns like Tell Shihab into an unpredictable sprint for your life. Secondly, the Jordanian appetite for continually absorbing refugees appears to be drying up; there is talk of imposing arbitrary daily quotas on the amount of refugees allowed across the border, which can’t be a welcome prospect for those still waiting to pack up their homes and make the journey past regime checkpoints towards the border, all while facing the possibility that they might not even be allowed to cross.
Hamza and Mohammed.
As I continued down the main track, a tall, well-built man named Hamza called me over to drink some tea with him. In his English, which was much better than my Arabic, he asked me how well I know Birmingham, which wasn’t really a question I was expecting to hear while stood in the middle of a Jordanian refugee camp. It turned out that Hamza had studied in Britain’s second city and had developed a love for English culture. While topping up my tea, he never stopped telling me how lucky I am to come from the UK.
As I attempted to sip that near-scalding tea, another man appeared from inside Hamza’s tin hut. Introducing himself as Mohammed, he told me he had just returned from fighting in Damascus and began to relay the horrors he had seen in combat. However, his repeated use of the phrase “Inshallah” (God willing) suggested that he’s now accepted those horrors as part of the anti-regime struggle and is willing to die fighting against Assad. “I am the same person as you, I believe in the same things as you, I just want to be free,” he told me.
After explaining how he feels let down by the West’s lack of military intervention, Mohammed trailed off and started tapping at his phone. I thought he’d just lost interest in our conversation, until my phone vibrated and I saw that he’d sent me some photos via bluetooth, which he asked me to share so the “world may see them”. That one above of him holding what appears to be a Russian-made PKM – a machine gun the size of a well-fed toddler – was his favourite.
As I continued ambling around the camp, a group of men started yelling at me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying, but a by-stander explained that they thought I was Russian. “They hate Russia – Russia is keeping Assad in power, keeping him killing,” I was told.
Returning to the entrance of the camp, I asked Mahmoud – a stout Jordanian army officer who appeared to be running things at the front gate – about the chemical attack in Ghoutta. “Assad is a monster,” he replied. “How can he do this to his own people? His is not a Muslim, he’s not even a man. Thanks to these chemicals, my friends in Damascus had to pack up their lives and say goodbye to everything they knew in minutes.”
Given that Mahmoud appeared to be about as anti-Assad as you can be without actually signing up to the FSA, I assumed he was in favour of foreign intervention. However, when I asked, he responded with a firm, “No! America must stay out.” Explaining his reasoning, he told me, “They are greedy. They just want Arab oil.” So despite the fact that Syria doesn’t even produce a great deal of oil – and even though Assad, widely condemned for his alleged war crimes, is still on the loose – the lingering scars from Iraq are enough for people like Mahmoud not to trust the West.
￼There’s a noticeable split of opinion in the Zataari refugee camp – many Jordanians hate the idea of Western governments intervening in the Middle East again, and King Abdullah of Jordan has publicly stated that he won’t allow his country to be a launch pad for any international operation. Meanwhile, their guests inside the camp – the real victims of the crisis – are resentful that intervention hasn’t already taken place, angry that Putin has talked Assad out of any real repercussions for his alleged use of chemical weapons.
As the list of atrocities committed in Syria increases, so too does the need for assistance and the exasperation of the millions of displaced Syrians waiting for the West to step in and help.
Follow Gareth on Twitter: @BrowneGareth
Originally published by VICE