Za'atari: A camp without a Post office

Published: April 13, 2016 - 15:07 Updated: June 14, 2016 - 16:05

Hardnews enters the second biggest refugee camp in the world where 80,000 Syrians are hopeful of a better future despite the trauma of the past 

Sanjay Kapoor Za’atari (Jordan)  

After disengaging from the unending traffic of Amman, the road to Za’atari is flat and soporific. It is possible to sense a military build-up on the sides of the road, but that is to be expected after the Syrian violence and the distressing rise of the Islamic State. Za’atari shows up unannounced as the vehicle slows down due to a security checkpoint. “You can’t enter Za’atari,” we are told. We have our requisite permissions. A little later we are ushered into the refugee camp, listed as the world’s second largest. It is unpretentious, orderly and does not visibly exhibit the emotional trauma of the monstrous tragedies that the people of this camp have left behind – until you talk to them.

Refugees are not alien to Amman. There have been waves of refugees over the years that have created the new Jordan. Amman, which later became its capital, was first used by the Ottomans for settling Circassian refugees from the Balkans. Later, the Palestinians were accommodated here after the Israeli-Arab conflict in 1948. They were followed by refugees from the Iraq war in 1991; and, now, the Syrians.

There are approximately 1.2 million refugees from Syria living in Jordan, perhaps more than the number that crossed into fortress Europe since the much celebrated Arab Spring broke in 2010-11. Interestingly, the people here have borne the burden quietly unlike the countries of Europe which gave an impression of a calamity occurring.

Follow Hardnews on Facebook and Twitter ...

Five years ago, Za’atari was a desolate desert outpost near the town of Mafraq. On March 15, 2011, violence reached a new level in Daraa, the epicentre of the uprising in Syria. The brutality and scale of bloodshed forced many to take refuge in the dusty tent city of Za’atari. From Daraa, a combustible mix of foreign intervention, radical Islam and desire for change spread to other cities of the country. Since that day more than 2,47,000 people have lost their lives and millions have been displaced. Now, there are 80,000 Syrian refugees living in Za’atari, which is the world’s second largest refugee camp with an area of 5.2 square kilometres.

Now that the Islamic State is on the run after targetted bombing, questions are being raised about how precisely the US-led forces are fighting this barbaric, religious threat. The Russian intervention revealed that the IS threat was metastasised by the West and it could be neutered by a small fleet of 34 bombers 

Without a drone’s perspective of the camp, it is impossible to get a sense of its spread and how many prefab houses it has. According to Colonel Muhammad Hamdi Al-Kofahi, who looks after the camp on behalf of Jordan’s Public Security Directorate, “There are no tents here. All the tents have been replaced by the prefab houses and containers.”  By the look of it, Za’taari appears a self-contained town with nearly all the facilities that international donors and multi-lateral agencies could provide. There is a mall, shops and thousands of small businesses. People are slowly striking roots in a place that seemed like a temporary abode when many of them trooped in some years ago. It’s a town that looks cleaner and more habitable than the many slums that scar big metropolises around the world.  

Many of the refugees are unsure whether they can return home despite the US-Russia ceasefire tenuously holding for the past few weeks. Take, for example, Ali, a farmer, who travelled with his four children to Za’atari four years ago and who lives in what is derisively called the “human warehouse”. Not a day passes, Ali says, when he does not long to go back to Syria. Though he cannot return as long as he is staying in the camp, he keeps getting information about what’s happening in his village, where there is manifest cessation of violence after the ceasefire came into force. 


(Syrian refugee children at the Za'atari refugee camp)

In fact, this is the first time since 2011 that hope for peace is returning to this land of figs, olives and feta cheese. Hope has been rekindled after Russia and the US brokered a ceasefire, which, despite umpteen violations, tenuously holds. This big change in Syria has been brought about by five months of some merciless bombing by the Russian Air Force on Islamic State and al-Nusra strongholds. Though Russia has ended its military intervention, it helped in resuscitating the beleaguered Syrian government of President Basher-al-Assad. The military intervention by Moscow, despite major misgivings, paved the way for the two governments – the Russian and the US – to work together to stabilise the war-torn country. Recent military successes, including the liberation of the famous heritage city of Palmyra from the bloody clutches of the Islamic State, are leavening hopes of peace epitomised by the conduct of the UN-supervised Geneva peace conference.

The emergence of this new compact is bringing old alliances under pressure. The return of Iran to the international order after the clinching of the nuclear deal with the US and other European countries is hastening this process. Countries of the region are readjusting their positions. Jordan, which is like an island of peace surrounded by turmoil all around, has acknowledged the change that is sweeping the region after Moscow’s stepping in. An extremely articulate King Abdullah of Jordan stated that Moscow’s military intervention had “shaken the tree”. Russia’s increased clout is visible in the way it has struck a deal with Saudi Arabia to freeze supply of oil to restore some sanity to plummetting oil prices.

Many of these countries are still uncomfortable with the espectations that the rapidly changing geopolitics of the region would have of them. For instance, how will the Saudi Arabia-led Sunni alliance deal with Syria after the withdrawal of the Russian military and aerospace forces? Will they display outrageous audacity and try to change the regime in Damascus or allow Russia to exercise its sway over this country of the Levant?

There are 1.2 million refugees from Syria living in Jordan, more than the number that crossed into fortress Europe since the Arab Spring. Interestingly, the people here have borne the burden quietly unlike Europe which gave an impression of a calamity occurring

The Saudis and their allies have realised that the presence of Russia in Syria also protects Iran’s interests and that is mostly unacceptable to them. The belligerence that the Saudis have displayed in the region, including their growing proximity to Israel, is largely stoked by fear of Iran’s rehabilitation after its nuclear deal with the Western powers. Russia is a major player in this deal and recognises that it can upset the US-led power game if it woos the countries that are opposed to it, for instance, Iran.

Ever since violence swept Syria, Iran has invested heavily in keeping the Syrian regime alive. It has sent its revolutionary guards, armed Hezbullah, and given copious funds to sustain the Assad government. The Russian intervention on September 30, 2015, bolstered the Assad regime and lent a new perspective to the fight against the Islamic State. Now that the Islamic State is on the run in Syria after targetted bombing of its positions, questions are being raised about how precisely the US-led forces were fighting this barbaric, religious threat. The Russian intervention revealed that the IS threat was metastasised by the Western media and the West and it could be neutered by a small fleet of 34 bombers and some missile carriers. By promising to be back in a few hours if the dark forces of the IS return to the parts liberated by Russian and Syrian forces, it has been able to convey to IS fighters and their sponsors that they can no longer trifle with Russia. From this standpoint, it seems difficult to believe that Saudi Arabia, despite its misgivings about Russia reviving Assad, would try to take on a serious military power.

It is difficult to process all these fast-paced developments immediately, but the refugees that are spread all over Jordan and the rest of the world are waiting with bated breath to find out the impact of the ceasefire and the ongoing Geneva Conference and whether it can help them return home. Daraa, too, from where a majority of the refugees were bussed to Za’atari, is reportedly returning to normal. Arab websites report a surprising spurt in weddings and parties. No one knows how long this good news will last, but people are making the most of it. A hairdresser in Za’atari, who has a small hair salon, was a little diffident about returning home till peace was back. He was emphatic, “My shop was burnt in Daraa and my brother was killed. Here, in Jordan, I am doing well. Why should I go back till life normalises there?”

Za’atari is run by the UNHCR and managed by the Syrian Refugee Affairs Directorate (SRAD). Here, the security is tough and it is not possible for outsiders to get in or the inhabitants to slip out. It is a fairly well-fortified camp. Col Kofahi, though, belied such strictness. He said, “People can go on a vacation, but they have to return at a specified time.” He also claimed that many of them have relatives in Jordan and many of them step out for business reasons.

(Syrian refugee couple Mohammad and Kholod with their daughters, Fedaa and Rima, at the Za'atari refugee camp)

Jordan houses 1.2 million Syrian refugees in different camps all over the country. Unlike the time when Palestinians sought refuge in this country and were located in Amman and around, this time they are housed in other areas. The Jordanian authorities claim that the presence of so many refugees on their soil is imposing a huge strain on their economy. “We cannot run these camps if international help is withdrawn,” explained a camp official.

Quite conspicuously, the aid is coming from Saudi Arabia – whose prefab mosque with the Saudi government’s logo can be seen from a distance. The Saudis are deeply invested in getting the regime changed in Damascus. Along with the Qataris, they have spent copious funds to bankroll the Free Syrian Army that occupied Daraa after Assad’s forces were routed. Many of the refugees who travelled to Za’atari were ferried by them. Only those refugees were entertained who had identification papers. At the time when the Syrians were leaving their villages, they were strictly told by the Free Syrian Army rebels to carry their papers.

Interestingly, most of the refugees from Daraa who live in Za’atari seemed to be from a rural background. They seemed to have very little education and many of them appeared semi-skilled. Many of them have immersed themselves in different businesses. According to camp sources, there are 2,500 illegal businesses running in Za’atari, but the authorities deliberately look the other way. A camp source said, “There are some products that are being produced in the camp with brand names that are not from Jordan.” Syrian refugees also provide cheap labour to the farm sector. Many work on tomato farms.

 The most striking aspect of the refugee camp is the small children. Many of them unwashed, as water is largely scarce, they can be seen running around all over the place, happily posing for cameras when they are not in school. They give an impression of being on an unending vacation as their parents and guardians look for ways to keep them busy and protect them from “bad elements” that, they fear, abound in the camp. The authorities, though, deny the presence of criminal networks and human traffickers and are happy with the way the refugees have conducted themselves. For many of the refugees whose homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, it is a cruel trade-off: peace for a degraded life in a foreign land. Indeed, it is unlikely that their status as refugees is going to end anytime soon.

Follow Hardnews on Facebook and Twitter 

Hardnews enters the second biggest refugee camp in the world where 80,000 Syrians are hopeful of a better future despite the trauma of the past 
Sanjay Kapoor Za’atari (Jordan)  

Read more stories by Za'atari: A camp without a Post office

This story is from print issue of HardNews