How the largest Syrian refugee camp became a mini-Syria.


We lived many lives in those whirling campaigns, never sparing ourselves; yet when we achieved and the new world dawned, the old men came up again and took our victory to remake in the likeness of the former world they knew.
—T E Lawrence,
The Seven Pillars of Wisdom

Umm Khaled was among the first to arrive with her young granddaughter. She had lost her daughter somewhere. Probably dead, she says. When she first came, the camp was a great unifier. Everyone was equal in their suffering. There were no shops, there was nothing. People got the same rations from the UN. Everyone lived in tents. She felt equal for the first time in her life.

Then came the businessmen, the smugglers and the mafia. Tents started giving way to pre-fabricated homes called caravans. The rich got richer in Za’atari and the poor, poorer. Businesses flourished, as did corruption.

Za’atari had become for its refugees much like the country they had fled—a mini-Syria away from Syria.

Za’atari Refugee Camp is located in the Northern Jordanian desert that borders Syria. Unlike most refugee camps that lie at least 50 kilometres from conflict, Za’atari is merely 15 km away. It’s so close that in the night, the loud booms and thuds of shelling can be heard.

Za’atari is a mirage. It’s a patch of land in the desert with a sea of beige tents and caravans. The sand storms are so tempestuous that the UN had to dump $2 million worth of stones to prevent the sand from bruising the refugees. The Jordanian government allocated the 13 square kilometres as the spillover from the war started to rise when the first batch of Syrian refugees arrived on July 29, 2012.

Most residents are from Dera’a, the small district that gave birth to a big rebellion. They speak of Dera’a with pride here, calling it the hometown of the Syrian uprising.

Last year, when the refugees first arrived, they crammed into a small corner that abutted an airstrip. The UN Refugee Agency or the UNHCR had provided them with tents. By November 2012, the war had got messier and the sound of shelling relentless. In December 2012, around 4,000 people were crossing over into Za’atari day and night.

Today, they continue to arrive but in smaller numbers. At the time of writing around 820 people had fled their homes in one night. Many traversed hills, green fields and then marched into the desert. The journey lasted several days. Za’atari, once a quiet village is now Jordan’s fifth largest city with over 150,000 people, most of whom are Syrians. It is the largest Syrian refugee camp.

Bashar al Assad’s men crossed over into Jordan too. The defectors were ferried away from Za’atari instantly to another camp in Zarqa. Letting them loose on the camp would spell mayhem in the Free Syria Army friendly zone.

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