How the largest Syrian refugee camp became a mini-Syria.
TEXT AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY ALIA ALLANA
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.
Yazan is waiting for the bus in his new white trainers. The bus will ferry him from Za’atari to Syria, “spontaneous repatriation” courtesy of the Jordanian government. He looks fresh and relaxed, clean-shaven and crisp in a light blue T-shirt. His body is lean, toned. He’s got Popeye biceps, green eyes and tanned skin but his forehead has a white strip that runs across it. Perhaps that’s where he ties the black bandana that distinguishes fighter from citizen, rebel from soldier.
Is that where you tie the bandana? Are you a fighter with the Free Syria Army (FSA)?
Are you with Al-Jazeera? I say no. He won’t speak to me if I am. He takes a long calculated drag off his cigarette and talks to the other boys squatting on the sand. They too have white foreheads; they too look strong, nimble, and agile.
Do you want me to be a rebel?
Let’s cut the bullshit, otherwise I can speak to someone else, I say.
Okay, okay, these are Yazan’s five minutes of fame. This is his moment to be remembered as a FSA fighter.
Why does he fight? For freedom? He chuckles.
For money too, he says.
Fighting makes Yazan feel important. At Za’atari, displaced Syrians have given him a jock’s welcome. He’s been at the camp for three days. Syria was getting too hot; he couldn’t escape the fight, not even in his sleep. Night after night, he relived the same nightmarish hell he saw in the day. Shelling. Gunfire. He could smell death. His commander had seen him lose morale so he was given time off.
Thank God for Za’atari, he says.
Where else could he go? Not much is left of Dera’a where he fights. Shops, offices, have all been destroyed. Homes, hospitals are heaps of rubble. The dust-swept camp is a twisted Club Med of the rebellion and he was desperate for a few days of relaxation. Yazan also needed to get laid. It was the easiest shag ever. He doesn’t care for her name. A slut, that’s what he calls her, but she was good. A girl with hazel eyes. They did it in a UNHCR tent. It wasn’t romantic. It was just about release. Za’atari to him is about release. It’s an escape on the run.
Someone had paid the girl five Jordanian Dinar ($8). No one had asked him to foot the bill. In Za’atari, the rebels are the heroes who will bring down the villain Assad.
For a village boy being a fighter has been a godsend. He earns money in Syrian Pounds; money that he spends in Za’atari. Over the past three days he’s got a makeover with new T-shirts, new shoes and new jeans. He’s eaten five shawarma, in three different places.
The next time he comes, he’ll take me to the best place to eat, if he’s still alive.
Yazan is staring dead ahead. Soon the bus will take him back to the Syrian border. Fifteen kilometres to the civil war. Half an hour to gunfire. He’s nervous about returning. His family lives in Za’atari. Last night his mother asked him not to go but he has to fight. How else will he send his mother money? How else will they survive Za’atari? Prices have already gone up. The little gas stove his mother purchased has doubled in cost.
As the war carries on Za’atari will continue to become more and more expensive.
A battered white bus arrives on the ring road that encircles the camp. Chaos follows. Yazan swears at the Jordanians. They should have provided the Syrians with a better service, a more comfortable journey, he says.
Women, children and men rush to get a seat. When all the seats are occupied they pile on top of each other. Many stand while others find place on the roof. Yazan climbs on top of the giant wheel and enters through a broken window. He’s done this before.
Many have been left behind. They could walk but most have given their passports to the Jordanian officials when they first crossed over. Now, this is the only way out. Plus, why not take a free ride?
The next bus creates a wilder frenzy. A mother pushes her young daughter in; her butt is stuck in the window. She’s shoving her inside and in goes a small bag. A boy is wailing. He’s lost his mother, he finds her and then she hurries him in. A girl on crutches can’t get past the rush. She cries. A woman with a two-month-old baby is hysterical. She can see her husband through the window. She’s crying, she will miss him. Go Fight. Go Kill Them, she yells. He’s crying too.
The second white tourist bus leaves. It’s got more than 80 people in it. None of their names have been documented, it’s almost as if they were never in Za’atari. The bus drives off into the sunset as the Muezzin calls out for Maghrib prayers.
A hopeful says, tomorrow.
Why does she want to leave?
“Better to die with dignity in our home, as a Syrian,” she says.
On the side street are three young girls standing crookedly in stilettos. Their faces are caked in make-up. They walk over to two young boys that didn’t get on. Together the five walk back to Za’atari.
Almost hidden, a road sign emerges from the boundary of the French Hospital Compound. On a red pole is a small green and blue board with the street name: Avenue des Champ-Elysees. There’s an arrow pointing westwards: “Paris 3305 kms,” it reads.
Za’atari’s rapid development can be accredited to massive investment by the international community. Over the past month the EU Commissioner for Aid and Development Kristalina Georgieva; Canadian Administrater of State for Finance, the US Deputy Secretary of Defense in charge of the Middle East, embassy staff from Saudi Arabia, Finland and Denmark have come to see the conditions and learn about the politics of the camp.
On the day of writing, a Saudi Arabian princess had been chauffeured through the giant beige archways, past the blue and black gendarme tank that patrols outside.
Millions have been injected into this barren piece of land. Solid infrastructure steadily takes shape: roads, electricity, sewage, water tanks, all for the sad Syrians.
“They invest because they feel guilty, because they have been unable to stop the bloodshed. Money washes the guilt off,” says a senior UN worker.
Only the few authorised personnel are allowed in, most are prevented from leaving but in the wild west of the camp the police are too timid, too outnumbered to patrol.
She walks quietly to the West Gate. She’s going to bust out of camp life. Many call it dehumanising. What’s a border anyway? It’s just an invisible line in the sand. She has a black abaya and a blue headscarf on. Nobody pays her any attention. She’s just another nameless refugee, just another somebody. She looks over her right shoulder, the police officer is arguing with the driver of a water tanker.
This is her moment. The officer sees her absconding. He’s probably heard the children whooping as she runs. Now they are cheering. Some say she will make it. The officer gives chase and she’s made a U-turn running back to camp with giant tears on her face. Her blue scarf is pulled backwards; her hair is plastered to her forehead. She looks spent but the children egg her on.
Yalla, Yalla, Yalla, Go, Go, Go.
Take 2. She’s made another dash for the border. She’s running faster now, as if she’s born to run. Soon the blue-scarfed woman is in a red mini-van that will take her to Amman, the capital of Jordan. This one-and-a-half hour journey will cost her 8 JD. That’s the price of not being a refugee.
Only the privileged few with enough savings or family in the capital will be able to get away. Amman is an expensive city and the burden of refugees has pushed prices up even further.
The mini-van races across the desert leaving behind a trail of sand and excited children; this is their early afternoon entertainment. Placing bets on who will make it across the border to the already refugee-burdened Jordanian cities.
Za’atari is extremely porous. There is no boundary and the movement of people and goods creates a lucrative opportunity. The civilian police are in charge of the camp. It is they who often face the ire of the angry refugee and chase after cars that are smuggling all sorts of items out of the camp.
Za’atari, like many villages on borders, has a history of smuggling to which the homes in the area are testament. Big palatial mansions with palm trees and expensive cars are dotted over the town. This is not like the other small towns in Jordan. Za’atari is unique and now the refugee camp serves as a conduit for illicit trade.
An elderly man with a salt and pepper moustache and beady eyes is loading a pickup truck. Neither a UN worker nor an official, Abu Hamoud is just another smuggler. He stacks the back with mattress, stopping only when the pile becomes unsteady.
In the front seat are bags of rice, bottles of oil and boxes of spaghetti—items that the UN provides as assistance for the refugees. Abu Hamoud’s doing this in broad daylight.
Are you not afraid of the police? I ask.
He looks amused. Who will they chase after? Me or the one behind me?
“It’s a real problem. How many people can you chase after,” asks Colonel Zahir, the head of police.
The police to have their limitations: the officers are unarmed; smugglers operate unafraid, undeterred. Every few minutes a car darts across the desert leaving a trail of sand behind. Two smugglers I spoke with said they sold the items in Amman, Mafraq and Zarqa at lower prices.
UNHCR tents have ended up in faraway locations such as Lawrence of Arabia’s Desert Highway.
Many of the people who get food aid are not in need of it. Often, people cross back into Syria only to register themselves again with the agencies, thereby allowing hoarding.
Za’atari has, in a way, become a Special Economic Zone for the rebellion. Money that is earned in the camp is re-injected into Syria. Money that can buy bullets, guns—pocket change that can further fund a rebellion.
It is estimated that over the course of one day around $100,000 are generated through the camp’s economy according to several senior UN staffers and officials in the Jordanian police. Za’atari Camp is a Syrian village: the UN has processed 211,000 people since July 29, 2012. Currently there are around 110,000 people, about 25,000 families.
It is because of them that Champs Elysees thrives. Someone is selling something, everywhere. There are at least five convenience stores selling shampoo, conditioner, cigarettes. A few doors down Coca Cola vendors have delivered two new fridges. Official forms have been filled in and soon the fridge will be full. New brick shops are coming up. Nobody is leaving any time soon.
Every fifth shop sells shawarma. There are barbecues, ice cream vendors and orange coloured drinks are dispensed by roadside hawkers. A young boy sucks on an ice-lolly as he walks idly.
Across the road, a man unpacks a new consignment of washing machines. There are TV sets and ACs for sale. Almost all stores have electricity that the UN pays for but has not authorised the sale of. It is estimated that some $2 million has been spent on electricity over the past three months.
Lama is sitting in her aluminum shack. It is midday and intensely hot. Luckily, she’s under a fan. She’s putting drops of thinner in the Russian Red nail polish. On the counter are several hairbrushes, a hair dryer and a curling iron. The black eye kohl popular with the Bedouins of the desert is for sale. Lama is the camp’s hairdresser, a make-up artist and stylist.
Hanging up in the salon are wedding dresses—big and puffy, white and glittery—so out of place in a refugee camp. When she first arrived, all Lama had was a small bag of clothes. She had packed in a matter of hours and legged it.
Her home would be razed, Lama was sure of this. It was. Mohammed, her young son lost his shoe, she gave him her large slipper.
Her husband, who owned a small clothing store, stayed behind. One night in the fighting his store was looted and the following day he packed a few items including the wedding dresses that she had asked for and left for Za’atari.
She says she knew the money would be good. People have to get married, life has to go on. She’s already dressed two brides. Business is pretty good but the rents are high.
Who does she pay?
She waves me off. She’s not foolish, she won’t speak.
All she says is that sheikhs from Module 5 and Module 7 come and collect rent. Not paying or revealing identities will make her disappear, she says. Za’atari is not that different from the shadowy system Assad has in place in Syria. People disappear in the night, never to return again.
As I left her salon, two young women had come to get their eyebrows threaded and upper lip waxed.
Many shopkeepers I spoke with said they were paying rent, sometimes thousands of Dinars. Most were afraid of revealing names of landowners. This was not public land, they argued.
Such claims were foolish thoughts, explained a shawarma storeowner. In this part of the world, nothing belonged to everyone: there was no such thing as public property.
Mafia had staked claim to the land from the early days. There were charges levied on electricity, rent and even a tax on food. An underground economy developed and thrives and there are at least five networks that are operational in the camp. Each one is linked to a mafia.
Abu Abdullah is part of the electricity mafia. He’s got a TV in his caravan, he’s got another caravan that is used for entertaining. He looks like a Don Corleone, one that the police and the UN appease. No one bothers him. To do that would be to sever ties with clans that are finally working with the officials in Za’atari. He is a part of the network that provides electricity to homes and shops along the Champs Elysees.
Almost all homes in Phase 1 have lights, as do all the stores. They operate a system entrenched in fear and retribution. Abu Abdullah rolls his eyes when I ask if he thinks his work is thieving.
“I feel no guilt. For too long I’ve been stolen from in Syria by Assad and his Alawites. This is payback and the international community will bear the burden. They could have acted to stop the bloodshed but they just hosted conferences. Israel is better than our Arab brothers, at least it attacked Bashar,” he spewed.
Mafia and FSA fighter are virtually indistinguishable. There exists an unspoken unholy alliance between the VIP refugees and the FSA fighters. A high-level FSA general, Colonel Idris resides in between two camps. He spends time at Za’atari. Should there be an issue, it is the Colonel that will beat out a resolution. Many FSA fighters are living a life of luxury they only dreamed of.
For the poor, the ones in real need of UN aid, life is a burden. First Naima’s daughter wanted a teddy bear, the little girl hadn’t seen a market place so big. The teddy bear with one eye missing, now hangs on a small nail in their caravan. Then her son wanted to eat out and she caved into his demands.
Naima has dipped into her savings and now not much is left. Pregnant with her third child, she is worried about the cost of diapers.
When she first arrived in Za’atari she was foolish and didn’t stand up for herself. The currency mafia took her for a ride. For almost all new arrivals the mafia devalued the price of the Syrian pound. They bought it cheap and sold it expensive. Suddenly her money was halved.
Sure, the UN did provide the refugees with aluminum plates and cups but she couldn’t bring herself to use them. Once her life used to be so proper, she’d paint her house once a year. The house was spacious with a comfortable living room and a flat screen TV.
A week before she left, she spent sleepless nights listening to the sound of the shelling as it edged closer. Fed up with the insecurity, Naima packed two bags stuffed with winter clothes for her children. She took a taxi to the border.
She begged her mother and father to accompany her. They wouldn’t leave. Her mother said she’d rather die in Syria than live like a savage in a desert. Naima said she’d return in 20 days, this wasn’t forever. She left her keys with her neighbour with instructions to open the house should another family come looking for shelter.
A week after she left her building was bombed. Once she had beautiful jewellery. Now she has nothing. After a few weeks of aluminum, she caved in and she bought gold and white glass teacups in which she serves me Turkish coffee. She sent her husband to Amman. He found sporadic work in Amman as a bricklayer. When he got paid it was a third of the going rate simply because he was a refugee.
“We’re not worth a lot,” he says.
She’s worried that soon she’ll run out of gas. Everything is getting more and more expensive. The gas mafia is running a racket. When she arrived the price of a small gas cooker was 1,500 JD. Then the mafia got wise and hiked the price to match Jordan’s going rate. Now she has to pay 3,000 JD. The UN has built kitchens for the refugees but there are long queues and often the gas is stolen.
“When our neighbors, the Lebanese, Iraqis, Palestinians had their conflict we welcomed them like Arab brothers. We never imagined they would repay the Syrians by dumping them in the desert,” she laments.
Ya Rab, Ya Rab. Oh God, Oh God.
Umm Qassim fans herself in the heat. She’s a heavy woman with a sweaty forehead. Beads of perspiration are dripping into her narrow eyes; it looks like she’s crying. But Umm Qassim isn’t. She’s livid, muttering: every day, they tell us tomorrow. Enough.
The stage is set for a confrontation. The catalyst is the caravan. Caravans are prefab structures that are slowly replacing the tents that have come to typify the refugee camp. The caravan has become a status symbol. It has also become a great divider in the desert between the haves and have-nots.
Two UNHCR representatives have come to sort out a quarrel before it turns into a riot. Good cop, bad cop: Samia, Jonny.
“They want everything now. We’ve got our constraints. Donor constraint, location constraints, timing constraints. But we’re always the bad guys. The ones who say, sorry, not today,” says Samia.
Based on satellite imagery the UN has provided 28,000 shelters. Around 12,000 families live in tents and another 12,000 have been moved to the caravans. The ballpark figure spent on the caravanisation of the camp is $36 million, with each caravan costing $3000.
Umm Qassim watches them from Ring Road. Lucky for her they have blue baseball caps on with the UNHCR logo. They are pacing back and forth. The gendarmerie has been called in, a tank stands on guard and another tank pulls up. This could get tense, there is talk of tear gas. Groups of men have gathered and are segregated in small clusters: young boys with stones in hand, young men puffing wildly on cigarettes and older men in kandooras, the sheikhs, fingering their worry beads anxiously.
The confrontation is taking place against a surreal backdrop. It’s just after mid-day. The sun is strong. Seven trucks with caravans have formed a semi-circle around the scene of conflict. These prefab homes won’t be off-loaded today.
Young boys are the first line of defence. They’ve formed a human shield and are sitting in front of the pick-up trucks. Suddenly the number has swollen. There are over 150 men now. Matters escalate and a few threaten to set fire to the caravans; another faction says they will destroy the camp. The truck drivers are too scared to get out. Just last week one driver was beaten up.
Dinesh Thalpawila, the UNHCR site planner and architect, explains how the situation reached crescendo. When the refugees first descended on Za’atari, they were each given a tent. The initial settlement was known as Phase 1. Then the Saudi donors came along. They allotted caravans to a few families. The Islamic system of zakat that many Gulf donors followed disrupted the traditional channels of humanitarian aid. That’s when the caravans became a matter worth fighting over. Many who were given homes were new arrivals. Old residents were furious. After the debacle, the UNHCR intervened and is instituting a system where allocation doesn’t cause anger or rioting.
Today on average around 40 caravans are delivered and families are transferred. It is estimated that by July everyone will have a caravan but by then the summer will have set in. These sought after homes will become little saunas that trap the heat.
But that’s later. Dinesh’s main concern has been to decongest Phase 1, the first settlement. The plan was to develop new phases and the new modules were ready by December 2012. Families who had arrived early on in the conflict would be priority one. But then the intense rain came and part of Phase 1 got flooded and a stampede followed. Refugees forcefully occupied some prefabs. More followed in this conquest and the whole plan was muddled.
Then the donors screwed up matters even further. The Saudis wanted their caravans in a spot they had chosen. As did the Kuwaitis and South Koreans. Tensions seen in the country played out in the refugee camp. Groups were divided and the refugee camp saw a regionalisation of territory, much like the conflict has seen.
Open spaces that would create a sense of calm for the refugee soon became occupied. Land near the Champs Elysees became prime real estate. A sheikh took control of 25 prefabs and started renting them out. It is rumoured that the rent money had been reinvested into the conflict.
The sheikh put his hand up: “Who would fund the uprising?” he quizzed.
Za’atari does have a bad reputation and for a mother of two beautiful girls Za’atari is a dirty place.
Rasha had heard of the prostitution before she got to the camp and she worried for the safety of her young daughters. They were often called the prettiest in the village. She had stopped them from going out late, had caught one of them involved in love-talk in the olive groves with her neighbour’s son.
Rasha placed severe restrictions on her daughters, outlawing them from venturing beyond their street. They live in the Saudi area. Their street is kind and tame but tension lurks in Module 5. She rationalises: like all towns, there is good and bad here.
A few weeks ago a gendarme had his head smashed while on patrol in Module 5. This area is referred to as the favela (shanty town) of the camp. There is no electricity and three of the major mafia networks operate from this area. There are flags of the Free Syria Army. The young fighters I had spoken with had been housed in Module 5. Several spoke disapprovingly of a discotheque and a brothel in the area.
The biggest challenge has been monitoring Module 5. Miscreants have installed CCTV in the area, to watch out for police and gendarme. The FSA fighters that I have spoken to have told me about monetary reinforcements that are sent from benefactors in Module 5. Storeowners and aid workers mentioned an area called the Bermuda Triangle where prostitution is rife.
It’s the weekend. Young girls in skin tight pants and skimpy tops, rouged cheeks and red lips make their way from Module 5 to the front doors of the camp. A young girl, who requested not to be identified, spoke about young men from Amman who would visit the camp. Her pimp was in Module 5. She’s 16.
Tala has green eyes and blonde hair. She’s a beauty. She is her father’s “property”, worth $2000 according to him. He said she was ripe, like “mangoes.”
A month ago, a Saudi woman with black eyes darkened their doorstep. She came looking for Tala. People had spoken of a beautiful girl in Module 2. Beautiful girls were her business.
Tala’s mother protested, she wasn’t 18 yet. Wait a while she had pleaded with her husband. He didn’t listen. A farmer, backward and broke, he wanted money. Jordan with its arid land and desperate water situation was no place for a farmer.
He had needs too, he said and so he sold his daughter to a Saudi man, 35 years older than she was.
Too many have lost their youth here.
Amar doesn’t know how he let it get so bad. How he’s got a dead baby in his arms. It’s his child from his first wife. He wants to bury the baby, to have a proper funeral. Amar can’t just dig a hole in the sand, it would be improper.
Noor was 18 months old when she died. Her body, battered and bruised, is at the coroner’s. The doctors say there were signs of neglect. She wasn’t fed enough. Noor’s mother couldn’t live in Za’atari so she returned to Syria. She left her child with her husband’s fourth, young wife.
The stepmother had two of her own. Two that she didn’t really want. They too are covered in bruises and this is just one story of domestic violence of the many in Za’atari.
On average, a Syrian family has 4.5 children according to UN statistics. Many women I spoke with had six children or more. Children, however, are often ignored, left idly in the streets with no structure, routine or guidance.
There are 60,000 children in the camp. Half of them are school-going age, yet only 3,000 are registered to attend. Many are fighting battles elders are involved in and are running into trouble with the police. Too often they cut the fences and act as guides for smugglers and runaways.
An aid worker with an NGO worked double shifts to keep the children off the streets. Football, music and other activities had kept the children busy. There was a brief period when Za’atari looked like a normal village. Two weeks later, she had to stop.
A man had accosted her on the street. He shouted at her and later threatened her. “Too happy,” is how he described the children.
He lashed out at her: didn’t she know a civil war was going on, he had asked. “Young dissatisfied youth” was what the man with the long beard has ordered.
Many children look like street children. Their skin has been dried by the bitter winter and then burnt under the summer sun. Some have jobs selling chai and cigarettes, others work as porters and move luggage on wheelbarrows.
On one of my walks across the camp I came across a group of boys. They were standing with a young man who was telling them about the front lines of the conflict. They listened enthralled. On the top of his tent a Free Syria flag fluttered in the wind. He told them about how he had shot an army officer and how the officer had fallen. He showed them scars on his arms. They watched with stunned eyes.
Later that day I saw the same boys playing a game. They had divided themselves into army and rebel and were battling with stones as the sun set over Za’atari.
Riots are not uncommon in Za’atari. More often than not, men protest after Friday prayers.
People worry about water. A riot had broken out in Module 2. There was a rumour that water would run out soon, though UN staff had assured me that there was plenty, more than met the needs of the people. The people didn’t believe the authorities. They wanted more tankers. In a matter of minutes clashes broke out. Young boys attacked the gendarme with stones. Older men charged with tent poles. Then a police officer was assaulted. Eventually the gendarmes intervened, dispersing the crowd with tear gas.
The next day, a young police officer had chased after a Syrian man who had attempted to cross the border. The officer grabbed the man by his shirt as he entered a mini-van. Inside, three Syrian men, fed up and angry, showed their might. They grabbed the officer, tied him up and kidnapped him. The gendarmerie was dispatched and again tear gas was the game changer.
The Mayor, the Colonel, the General and the Police are fed up. An idea was hatched in the prefab rooms of the Colonel to build an earth wall around the camp. Hours after a part of it had been built, young boys had shovelled through the sand allowing smugglers with caravan boards to pass through.
Aid workers too are susceptible to attack. Anna, a Spanish physician at the UNHCR clinic was caught in an ambush. Milk distribution was underway at the clinic. Lactating mothers with raging hormones barged into the clinic. They all wanted powder milk yet none of them actually needed it. Two aid workers were cornered, the doors to the clinic were blocked by young boys with stones. Fathers climbed on top of the caravans and jumped as lights came crashing down. Again, the gendarmes had to intervene.
The camp continues to grow. There are a few who remain undocumented and homeless. In the holding room is a man who has been sleeping on a mattress on the floor for the past month.
His name is Mohammad. He is 43 years old and from Dera’a. A year ago his wife left him, she said he was mad and took her three children with her. Mohammad was a bricklayer like many of the other men in the camp. He lost his job, then his home was destroyed in an attack. He came to Za’atari alone. According to the rules, single men must share a room with two other men. Nobody wants to live with Mohammed.
He cuts a dubious figure in the window. Mohammad has a red and white scarf draped over his head and looks like a twisted Arab incarnation of the rapper P Diddy. He moves his hands as he talks and looks like he’s rapping. He says that there is great distrust amongst his people and his foe is another single man in the holding room. Mohammad says that the man has stolen his mattress and accuses the man of being a spy. The man charges him with all the same accusations.
It is common knowledge that there are spies at work in the camp. In the complex network of actors the spies are a force unto themselves. Some work for the government of Assad and are sent to the camp to brew trouble. Others work with the police and the opposition.
Rami looks like Jean Claude Van Damme, with chiselled features and a strong body. He has a tattoo of a woman on his forearm. He approaches the mayor with a piece of paper. It reads, give this man a home. The mayor tells him to contact the office. Moments later the Mayor gets a phone call. It is the police. They want Rami accommodated, he’s a useful informer. The Mayor has to oblige. This new arrival is given a caravan that will house his wife, pregnant with his ninth child.
Za’atari is the sort of place that needs a mayor. Without some order and structure the already out-of-control development would mean utter chaos.
“This is worse than Mogadishu,” says Killian Kleinschmidt, the UNHCR Camp Team Leader who calls himself the mayor. He moves from the rooms of the office to the Colonel, from the food distribution centres to the reception centres where refugees are registered.
Colonels, Brigadiers and officers credited Killian with changing the fate of the camp for the better. They call him “the boss.” A hefty German man with an old school purple telephone, Killian is not someone who can be missed. Street elders respect him but he’s hassled because of the “sharks.”
The sun has set and the buses leaving for Syria have rolled out. Another convoy of buses is traversing the tense terrain carrying Syrians who are fleeing war. He’s watching the International Organisation for Migration buses come in and waits at the giant Bedouin tent that is known as the reception room.
The space is a crying, squealing terrified mess as an immunisation drive is underway. Children wail.
“Imagine the first experience a child has is of a needle in his arm. It’s not a fun place to be,” he says.
A couple of months ago, an outbreak threatened. After the shots are doctors with the World Health Organization who force four pink, green and white medicines down the throats of children. These are the vitamins.
Killian receives a manic phone call, there is no light at the World Food Program distribution point. New arrivals are being given food in the dark. He curses and makes calls to remedy the problem. Further along, new arrivals are given SIM cards by ZAIN, a Jordanian telecommunications company.
He eyes the “sharks”, people from the outside who have snuck in and are hanging about or selling bread and cigarettes. He chases them out. In a loud German accent, he yells, Yalla, Yalla. The gendarmes are called to keep the young boys out.
His big worry is the young girls who cross over. There are already 15,000 vulnerable people—one in ten—and he doesn’t want more. Registration and the uncertainty it causes is the moment of highest vulnerability. People can be picked up, some have been smuggled out to never return.
Two boys are caught in the red. One of them has wedged a pole into the wire mesh and the other has managed a tight balancing act. He’s jumped over the six-foot fence. They see Killian and freeze.
With their heads bowed they’re escorted out.
The number of fights astounds him. Police and refugee, police and sharks clash too often. Matters get tense in this “giant human processing unit”. Just last week there was not enough water at the arrival hall. Refugees were miffed. Soon they picked up stones and battled the police. Now there is hot tea.
It is the registration room and reception hall that capture the refugee experience, where the sudden feeling of being homeless strikes. Za’atari does not have a fence, it gives the illusion of freedom but in that room, one feels caged.
With double wiring and barbed wire on top it looks like Guantanamo but for Killian it’s not safe enough. He remembers when aid workers were burnt to death in West Timor. This place is volatile too and so he walks with stones in his pockets. In Amman, he saw a store selling nunchaks. He wanted to buy a pair, but he didn’t. He says he is scared.
Despite the sudden homelessness and dislocation, people attempt to maintain a veneer of normality. The reception area looks like a transit room. People yell across the fence. They have water, cigarettes and biscuits for sale. Boys with wheelbarrows wait to transport the luggage. They are the camp porters. Others wait for their families to arrive.
The last holding room the refugee sees before his exit has graffiti advertising a restaurant with hot tea. It’s got an arrow and a name. Just 50 metres away.
A young boy pushes his mother in a wheelchair, he wants to register himself. He’s been walking for two days over rocky terrain under gunfire. His young daughter sits on his mother’s leg.
“Is it just the three of you,” a UN staffer asks. “My wife and brother should be here,” he says. He looks around and returns without the others. He can’t be registered without his entire family.
He’s frozen behind the wheelchair, tears running down his eyes. His daughter looks at her father and starts wailing. That’s when his mother realises her son’s crying and starts sobbing.
It’s late in the night and the chaos of Za’atari has settled. It’s a strangely quaint little village now. Almost everyone is in their tent in Phase 1. The people are warm and welcoming. Many invite me for dinner. The scent of food travels through the canvas into the desert. Later in the night, a group of women go for a walk in the moonlight. There’s a cool breeze. A woman says she wouldn’t leave here. Her entire family has arrived now and this is the closest they’ve been for years. Za’atari is home.
A woman is cleaning the cement on the floor. She’s taken time to design her little tent. She’s collected the stones and made a little mosaic. She got little green pots at the entrance. It’s a small foyer that leads to a living room and then a bedroom. She says she’s proud of her house, even if it’s a little tent.
“For now, this is my fate,” she says.
Nobody goes hungry in Za’atari. Oddly enough feeding over 100,000 is a smooth and manageable activity. The World Food Program has enlisted the help of Syrian volunteers who scan barcodes on WFP cards. Each family is given a ration box with wheat, rice, lentils, macaroni, vegetable oil, sugar and salt. The UNHCR provides a complimentary box with tomato paste, canned hummus and tuna. The highlight is the sweet halwa.
Each morning a queue forms and many arrive before dawn to collect their daily bread. Every day WFP, partnered with Save the Children, provides 27 tonnes of fresh bread. Picture this: if piled loaf-on-loaf the stack of bread would be three times the height of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa.
But the WFP faces challenges, funding will run out in June. In the past month WFP spent $5 million in food aid with bread costing $1.5 million.
Yet, Ahmad is not satisfied. There is no onion with the food, there is no spice either. Laure Chadraoui of the WFP explains about the voucher programme which will come into effect by July. Through this programme families will be given a fixed amount to spend at stores run by Jordanian vendors. This will bridge the gap between the refugee and host population.
Until then, there is the Champs Elysees. One night I saw a young man return with spices and olives from Syria. He had braved the fighting to return with material with which he would stock his shop. He said business in Za’atari was better than it had ever been back home.
[“O]ur plan is to manage the camp like a village and not just a camp,” says Killian. According to the new UNHCR plan, the camp will be divided into 12 administrative units. Each unit will have a council. This will bring the camp under authoritative umbrella. There will be greater monitoring and accountability. It is after this reorganisation that businesses, mafia and smugglers will feel the heat of Za’atari.
Already, members of the FSA network have been giving officials working on this project some trouble. They don’t want the system changed. They don’t want their power checked. Za’atari is the largest pro-FSA base in the world. FSA flags are scattered over the camp: tied to tent poles and wedged in nooks and crannies of shops. People openly talk of their support, openly celebrate victories. There are tents with FSA graffiti. A UN-built toilet reads: “Bashar lives here.”
It’s a few minutes to midnight and the camp is calm. A car comes roaring down Champs Elysees and pulls up in front of the French hospital. A Free Syria Army sticker is plastered to the back window of the car. Three boys jump out of the car and carry a fallen soldier in a blanket. He has three shots in his leg and two in the shoulder.
An aid worker watches in shock. The clinic is meant to treat camp residents only but then Za’atari is the uprising’s Special Political Zone.
The next day the boy is seen on crutches in Za’atari.
“Thank God for Za’atari,” he says.
(Alia Allana is a journalist and traveller. She has worked with The Indian Express and has contributed to The Hindu.)
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