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Syrians in Zaatari refugee camp fled danger, found misery

The camp in neighboring Jordan is underfunded and growing more crowded by the day as the war in Syria rages.

January 22, 2013|By Nabih Bulos, Los Angeles Times
  • A Syrian man tries to remove mud and water from around his tent in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Winter storms, which helped spark a riot during food distribution recently, have compounded the misery for more than 60,000 residents at the camp, a number that grows by an average of 1,200 daily.
A Syrian man tries to remove mud and water from around his tent in the Zaatari… (Mohammad Hannon, Associated…)

ZAATARI, Jordan — This sprawling tent city, by far the largest refugee camp for Syrians fleeing their war-ravaged nation, is becoming more crowded by the day, even as operating funds are running low.

Winter storms, the most recent of which collapsed tents, turned roads into muddy quagmires and helped spark a riot during food distribution, have compounded the misery for more than 60,000 residents, a number that grows by an average of 1,200 daily.

Camp administrators acknowledge that Zaatari is chronically underfunded, slowing purchases of essential items such as prefabricated shelters. They're meant to replace the canvas tents that still house most residents and provide little insulation from the elements. No one here is trying to sugarcoat the dismal reality of life in Zaatari.

"Not only do we not have enough prefabs for the full population, but every day you have more people coming in," said Tala Kattan, spokeswoman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

The agency is seeking $500 million in aid to keep the camp running until June. Whether donor nations and other benefactors will come through is unclear. Officials with the world body hope to raise about $1.5 billion for Syrian relief, much of it at a donor conference scheduled for next week in Kuwait.

A U.N. team that just completed a four-day visit to Syria concluded that the war was "destroying" the country, John Ging, operations chief for the U.N.'s humanitarian affairs branch, told reporters Tuesday in Beirut. "We saw a shocking state of human suffering," Ging said, describing a tableau of wrecked homes and factories, shortages of food and water and no prospect of a political solution.

The Zaatari camp, which has been open six months, has become emblematic of the harsh new reality facing Syrian refugees across the region. During the summer, extreme heat and wind-whipped dust batter the camp, limiting visibility and creating a hellish scene in the desolate patch of desert near the Syrian border. In winter, freezing temperatures, cold rain and snow make life miserable.

After the recent storms, some activists mounted a Facebook campaign calling for the closure of Zaatari. But aid officials say that would only make matters worse, leaving desperate refugees, mostly women and children, with one less option. Many arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs.

As the war rages in Syria, the number of people who have fled the country is expected to exceed 1 million this year. They represent the most obvious "spillover" effect of the conflict, now nearing the end of its second year.

The outflow has severely taxed the resources of bordering nations Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. The great majority of refugees do not live in formal camps but have scrambled to find housing and aid in towns, villages and cities, including Amman, the Jordanian capital.

With Zaatari's population expanding every day, the Jordanian government has established another camp to the south, east of Zarqa. Set to open later this month, the camp is projected to be more than five times the size of Zaatari, serving as an overflow facility.

Despite its shortcomings, Zaatari still offers basic shelter, food and medical care, as well as protection from the gunfire and airstrikes roiling Syria. Various nongovernmental organizations help provide aid, including classroom instruction for children.

Administrators say that despite rampant rumors to the contrary among camp residents, no one died of exposure or other weather-related issues during the recent storm, which was among the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

Musa, a 43-year-old father of five who asked that his full name not be given for security reasons, had just arrived in Zaatari after a grueling trek from Syria across muddy farmland. He expressed gratitude to the Jordanian government, which has so far adopted an open-door policy toward the refugees.

Gesturing to his family's stack of mattresses and blankets as he waited for a truck to transport him to his tent, he said, "They took us in. At least we're safe here."

Still, camp residents soon grow weary of the long lines, harsh weather and austere living conditions. At dusk, dozens of men wait for a bus to take them back to the border, where the sounds of shelling can often be heard.

Asked why they would return to the perils of their homeland, many respond with an oft-repeated phrase: "We would rather die in Syria than live here."

Bulos is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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