Syrians in Jordan ponder their fate

The boy wears a white headband, Rambo-style, and an undershirt that shows off his muscled arms. He says he’s 17, and looks it. He should be hanging out on a corner in some Syrian village, sneaking smiles at the passing girls, not standing amid the swirling dust of a refugee camp boasting about his time ...


The boy wears a white headband, Rambo-style, and an undershirt that shows off his muscled arms. He says he's 17, and looks it. He should be hanging out on a corner in some Syrian village, sneaking smiles at the passing girls, not standing amid the swirling dust of a refugee camp boasting about his time as a fighter.

The boy wears a white headband, Rambo-style, and an undershirt that shows off his muscled arms. He says he’s 17, and looks it. He should be hanging out on a corner in some Syrian village, sneaking smiles at the passing girls, not standing amid the swirling dust of a refugee camp boasting about his time as a fighter.

"I was with the Free Army, and I brought my family here," he says — to Jordan, to the Zaatari camp, near the northern city of Mafraq. "I stayed for one week, then went back to Syria. The bad situation had got worse, and people were being slaughtered with knives. The people I was working with had fled to Lejja [in the mountains, to regroup]…. I saw that there was nothing for me to do there, and so I came back."

"Most of the young people here, they are with the Free Army, and there are no weapons for them, no weapons at all."

The boy’s conversation follows a script that has become quickly familiar: He is asked about what brought him here, and answers with a plea for weapons. He wants anti-aircraft guns, surface-to-air missiles, and foreign troops enforcing a no-fly zone over his home in southern Syria.

"I have an idea," he says, excited. "Take the whole camp, and instead of all these [tents], they should buy guns for them, and then all the people here will go back…. It will just take one hour to free Syria."

It’s impossible to say how much of this story is experience, how much is youthful bravado and how much is learned propaganda. (Conversations like this are common in the camp, and different speakers often use strikingly similar descriptions and phrases.) But the boy illustrates what is perhaps the worst fear of the tiny Kingdom of Jordan: that its refugee camps and border areas will become militarized, places for fighters from Syria to regroup and recruit, to gather foreign aid or even smuggle weapons.

This kind of militarization is well underway in Lebanon, another haven for Syrian refugees, and seems to have been actively encouraged by Turkey. Jordan, however, has walked a fine line, receiving those who have fled but attempting to remain neutral. There have long been rumors that Syrian rebels have training camps in northern Jordan, but most evidence leans the other way. The kingdom has flirted with a number of border control regimes, and Syrian military defectors have been kept under guard in holding facilities — the Jordanian government has recently said it’s keeping more than 3,000 of them under wraps.

Some U.N. officials have cited a fear of militarization as one reason Jordan waited so long to open a refugee camp at all — alongside fears that simply building a camp would be interpreted by Damascus as support for the rebels. For months after the crisis started, the kingdom allowed Syrians to live in cities, where they were supposedly under the supervision of Jordanian sponsors, though most accounts suggest that sponsorship was a financial transaction, facilitated by middlemen between Syrians and Jordanians who had no contact with each other.  

And as the camp has grown, the government has made it increasingly difficult for Syrians to come and go. In August, they more or less ended the practice of releasing refugees to Jordanian sponsors, and camp security has been stepped up. Refugees’ passports are confiscated, and those who want to go back to Syria are often told they cannot leave.

Jordanian officials say they only limit repatriations because of concerns for the refugees’ safety during the perilous border crossing — but whatever the reason, such policies have been linked to considerable unrest in the camp. Young men have regularly held protests demanding to be allowed to return home, and on at least two separate occasions those protests have turned violent, leading to clashes between refugees and the darak, the Jordanian riot police. News reports have consistently highlighted the role of "single men" in the violence and the Jordanian policy response was to suggest isolating young male refugees in a secure area, or even another camp. (That move has not happened yet — at least in part because, in a camp full of large, extended family groups, the definition of "single" men can be quite contested.)

Aid officials say that militarization of the camp would be a humanitarian disaster, as well as a political one for Jordan. So how serious a problem is it? Is Zaatari full of fighters using it as a rear base? And are they responsible for the unrest there, because they are trying to go back and fight?

Dozens of interviews in the camp suggest that unlike Turkey and Lebanon, Jordan has been fairly successful at curtailing rebel activity (whether that has been its intention or not). It is true that the "Free Army," as the many different militias rebelling against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are collectively known, enjoys tremendous prestige and influence among the refugees, in part because of its role in helping them escape Syria.

But few of the young men who spoke so fervently about returning to topple Assad appeared to be taking any real action to do so. One can guess that for them, return represents a dream rather than a reality, an antidote to the boredom and frustration of camp life.

"They feel they’re letting the people at home down by not going back and fighting with them," says Aoife McDonnel, a media representative for the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which co-manages the camp. "It’s a feeling of helplessness … it’s difficult to accept."

Certainly, there is a kind of fatalism that pervades the camp. "The one good thing in Syria: If you died there it would be a good death," says one man. "You would be a martyr. If you died here, your honor would be gone. Your soul would not be at peace if you died here."

This was a common refrain among refugees: it is better to die at home than live in exile. Yet most of those who echoed it were not actually planning to return. "We’re not going to go back when we’re being bombed and there’s tanks shooting at us," states the man who spoke of being a martyr. Even the boy in the white bandana, despite his military rhetoric, says he is, for the moment, remaining in the camp with his family.

Those Syrians who really appeared to be leaving — the ones lining up for hours for the buses out, and accosting camp officials asking when they would be released — appeared more likely to be women and families than young men (although UNHCR has not released statistics) and they described a wide variety of reasons for leaving, which did not include fighting.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Jordan’s Zaatari refugee camp is that anyone who has made it there alive would try to leave.

Certainly, as has been widely reported, the camp is a wretched place: a barren patch of dirt, where as of October some 36,000 refugees live surrounded by fences. Their canvas tents and featherweight blankets do little against the heat of the midday sun or the chill of desert nights, or the choking, ever-present clouds of red dust. They remain ill-prepared for the arrival of Jordan’s cold, rainy season with not enough clothes or shoes. The water for bathing is cold and the water for drinking is warm, the food ranges from bad to indescribable, and the children are sick from the dust. As one refugee family after another says, there is no dignity to life in Zaatari.

But the news from Syria is worse still: the bombing and widespread destruction in Deraa in the south, the massacres by Syrian forces and their allies, the tales of widespread rape, of home invasions and looting, and of torture, including the torture of children.

Between these two narratives exits the question: why are people who sneaked over a border at night with Syrian army snipers firing after them, many carrying the aged or wounded on their backs as they fled from death, rape and torture, now saying they want to go back?

The desire to return is not just a rhetorical device to criticize conditions in the camp: many Syrians are, in fact, returning. After the second camp riot, in September, the Jordanian government began allowing more Syrians to return than it had previously, and hundreds did so. Now, it seems that almost every day, the entrance to the camp is crowded with people waiting for the buses that will take them back; and there are often far fewer spaces than there are refugees wanting to leave. On some days, according to UNHCR figures, there have been more people leaving the camp than arriving.

That should not eclipse the simple fact that actual returns have been only a small proportion of the tens of thousands in Zaatari camp — although it’s unclear how many Syrians would return if they were allowed. It should also be no surprise that a refugee’s decision to return is rooted in his or her specific reasons for leaving in the first place — and those can vary widely.

In Zaatari, there appears to be a kind of generally accepted narrative about arrival. Ask a refugee why he or she made the decision to come at a specific moment, and the answer is almost always the same:

"The situation in the country, we suffered from the bombs," said a young man who had set himself up on the camp’s main street, selling tea that tasted of ash and motor oil out of a plastic thermos. "You can’t sleep during the night from the bombs, and all the things you hear, and the shotguns."

"Bombs," said one young man, who was interviewed as he painted the side of one of the camp’s new latrines. "And they shot the people, they shot everyone working in the street."

"Air attacks, also, they just hit everything on the ground," said an older refugee, who runs a small shop in the camp.

"Shelling," said another man, interviewed in a tent with his family, just off the main road. "There was no security, there was no safety, you couldn’t even take your kids to the doctor. If something happened you were at home by yourself, just being afraid."

Initially, the cause of departure is described in these generalized terms. Some refugees’ initial accounts included specifics, but those were strikingly similar from one story to the next. For example, several people mentioned how the Syrian army was dropping  "oil drums filled with TNT" out of helicopters. This weapon would always be mentioned along with how many stories of a building it could knock down. Like folk tale motifs, there are certain things a story of leaving must include: the indiscriminate nature of the violence, the fear of people hiding in their houses. This is not to say the tales are untrue, exactly — only that they have been shaped to fit a pattern. And, of course there were exceptions, like the young couple from Homs, who said a bomb hit their house and they ran away with only the clothes on their backs.

This kind of narrative-weaving has led some researchers to speculate that new arrivals to the camp had been coached, possibly by the Syrian rebels who helped them across the border.

"You will get the same answer from everyone," says Walid Alkhatib, head of the polling unit at Jordan University’s Center for Strategic Studies, who has talked to people in the camps and to journalists who have done research there. "I think what happened: they’ve been told what to say. Either by our army or their army — the Jaysh al Hurr [Free Army]. One of them has exactly taught them what to say."

Every refugee, inside the camp and out, who described sneaking over the border said they were able to do so only with the help of the Free Army, so some kind of narrative coaching seems at least plausible — although no interviewee ever described anything of the kind.

Provision of assistance can also create incentives for refugees to focus on the aspects of their experience they believe will bring get them aid, or bring attention to their suffering. Or they may simply try to conform to what they believe is expected of them as refugees. But longer discussions often turn up reasons for leaving beyond the initial narrative of bombs and generalized violence.

The man in the tent, who spoke about hiding from the shelling, was in the camp with a large extended family — including a young son, about eight years old, whose eye was infected and swollen. According to his parents, the boy had sustained a shrapnel wound six months earlier. The family had come to Jordan after the eye became infected and his mother said that with medical care nearly nonexistent in Syria, they were hoping to get him cared for in a Jordanian hospital.

This narrative emerged only after nearly 40 minutes of discussing the difficulty of getting medical treatment in the camp. The family said they had been waiting for a doctor’s appointment for a month, and were worried the infection would spread to the boy’s other eye.

"Humanitarian cases are the most important cases," the mother said. "They should help them."

"The people here don’t know anything about humanitarianism," the boy’s grandmother chimed in.

The shopkeeper who spoke about air attacks went on to describe his businesses in Syria, but said there was no work there, with everything in chaos and people fleeing to Jordan. The couple from Homs, who fled their house after it was bombed, ran first to Damascus, where they lived for most of a year in Sayeda Zeinab, a neighborhood heavily populated by refugees from Iraq.

"All the people [there] say, go to Jordan, go to Jordan, go to Jordan," the woman said. "They [Jordanians] provide you with houses, with all the benefits." The man explained that he had tried to go to the Swedish embassy because he had heard they would resettle refugees, and was disappointed at finding he was not allowed to leave the camp. The couple was interviewed after they stopped a Jordanian NGO media manager on the street to ask when they would be allowed to return to Syria.

"If they allowed us to go outside the camp, we would never go back to Syria," the woman said. "But it’s not allowed."

Another man, a new arrival in Zaatari who was waiting for a food distribution, said, in quick succession, that he had left Syria because he was wanted for participating in a demonstration; that he decided to leave after hiding in a basement with his daughter as their village was bombed, and that he left after the Syrian army burned his house. But there were also plenty of refugees who offered chillingly personal stories about why they left. After describing the sound of the bombs and shotguns, the tea seller explained that the last straw for him came when a bomb fell on his neighbor’s house, killing their 16-year-old daughter.

Examining the specifics of refugee narratives is not meant to diminish the actual suffering that many have experienced. People left because their lives were uprooted, or because they had no way to make a living. Parents were terrified for their children, and children were terrified by the sound of planes overhead. None of those interviewed for this story described torture or rape, but there are accounts of these, too. UNHCR collects information from refugees arriving in the camp, which includes the incidence vulnerability related to torture. The agency would not release comprehensive statistics, but a selection of documents detailing more than 4,000 recent arrivals indicate fewer than 0.2 percent were tortured or witnessed torture. Even in a camp of 36,000 people, that suggests dozens of cases, not hundreds — but torture does not become less terrible for being less widespread.

And examining the multiplicity of reasons that refugees choose to leave their homes can help shed light on why many of them would choose to go back. Some, like the couple from Homs, came to Jordan specifically seeking services that were not available, and then hoped to return. Others had combinations of reasons: the unpleasant conditions in the camp were universally decried, but those who wanted to go back also said they had some kind of safe haven to run to.

One family, interviewed while waiting for a bus at the main gate, said they were going back to see if their house was alright — they thought it had survived the bombing of their village, but were not sure. A man waiting with them, a relative, said his house had been destroyed, so he would remain, at least for the present.

"The people whose houses are not fallen down, they’re going to go back, and the people whose houses are destroyed, maybe they’ll stay here," he said — a refrain also echoed by other refugees. A moment later, however, the man said his wife was sick, but when she was better, he thought they would try to return as well.

Another man, interviewed with a group outside one of the camp’s still-unfinished communal kitchens (a solution to the food-quality problems that has been slow to materialize) said that coming to the camp was, for him, only a temporary solution. He came to Jordan, he explained, "just to change his head a little bit" — to be able to relax, an escape from the constant sound of bombs and planes. He would stay a few weeks, then return. This, he said, was why there were crowds trying to leave the camp every day — though he was not, at present, among them. Return was still something for an indefinite future.

It should be noted that a majority of those interviewed for this story said returning to Syria was impossible, at least while the violence continued. Perhaps tellingly, that group included most of the young men. Many said they had fought with the rebels, and repeated the line that they would return immediately, if only the West would give them weapons to fight Assad. Then they would say they were wanted, and could never go back, or that return was impossible. They were not standing in line.

Indeed, the crowds that gathered regularly by the gate to wait for buses home were not heavily composed of young men. Many of the would-be returnees were families, or women with children. Several families said they were splitting up, sending some people home to check on their houses or find safety, while others remained in the camp. (Interestingly, in these cases it was women and children who were returning: Syria appeared more dangerous for men.) The couple from Homs believed they would be safe from the bombing in the small villages near their hometown. One man in his 60s, who was waiting for a bus with his family, said it was the third time he had come to try and go home, because his wife and children were sick from the dust. He said the Syrian regime had set up a "safe area" for children somewhere in the south, where there were no bombs and armed men were not allowed. No other account has mentioned such an area, and it seems likely that its existence is another rumor propagated in the hothouse environment of the camp — but a rumor of safety appeared to be enough.

Over the course of many interviews, the picture of a camp filled with young men aching to return to Syria to fight became increasingly complicated. Men who identified themselves as former fighters cited a variety of reasons for being in the camp, had a variety of different stances on return, and fit a variety of demographics.

The uncle of the boy with the eye problem was one of those who claimed to have been a rebel fighter. He was not in Zaatari alone, but as part of an extended family, which had come to Jordan looking for a specific kind of assistance, and said they had no intention of returning. There are no rebels in the camp, the uncle said: once they come here, they are not Free Army anymore.

Meanwhile, those who wanted to return were not uniformly young men — though it was generally agreed that it was young men who staged the protests that descended into violence.

Refugees offered various interpretations of those protests — they were for, or against, or praised the demonstrations but condemned the violence. One oft-repeated narrative was that the rioting was caused by agent provocateurs sent by the Assad regime, who incited both the refugees and the security forces until a clash erupted.

"The people who are with Bashar are the ones who destroyed things here and burned things," said one of the men interviewed near the communal kitchen. He pointed across the dusty street, to where an office trailer sat upside down, one end smashed in and soot stained. The side facing the road had been scrawled with graffiti then roughly painted over. Originally, the man said, it had read, "Abdullah is a donkey," a reference to Jordan’s king.

"They are writing things about [King] Abdullah: down with Abdullah, get out Abdullah, because here [in the camp] there is peace. They don’t want us to have peace, they don’t want Syrians to be comfortable here." Someone else in the crowd said the regime agents hoped Jordan would kick the Syrians out, sending them back to where they could be killed. (If the violence actually was an attempt to turn Jordanians against the Syrian refugees, it could be considered at least partly successful.) Still other refugees told tales of infiltrators burning tents and poisoning the water. Tent fires, at least, have actually occurred, and the UNHCR says they are being investigated. NGO staff said there were no problems with the water supply.

Bad relations between the Jordanian security services and the camp’s young men are also a likely factor in the violence.

"The darak, they say refugees are dogs," said the boy in the white bandana. "When you ask them any question, they get angry…. They forced us to respond in the same way that they are treating us."

The uncle of the boy with the eye infection offered a third, complimentary explanation: the boredom of life in a closed area, with no work and no purpose.

"They [young men] need something to do, anything," he said. "Even if they pick up the dirt and move it from one place to another, then they move it back — just give them something to do." As he was being interviewed, a boy, perhaps 15 years old, ran up to a nearby tent with what appeared to be a metal pipe, and began beating another boy with it. Men nearby scrambled to separate them.

"That’s exactly what I was just talking about," the uncle said. "There are kids and they’ve got nothing to do."

It’s worth noting that the few refugees who said they were happy in the camp were those with jobs. Life in the camp was "1,000 times better than life in Syria," said a man standing guard over an empty kindergarten tent. "It’s better for the children … Even the smallest children that we have now, they know the different types of weapons, they know this is an M-16 … so now we are trying to teach our children that this is a rose and this is a classroom and this is an exercise book."

The stories of the refugees do not strongly suggest that Jordan’s camps are likely to become a haven for rebels. Though some will almost certainly try to go back and fight, for the moment, Zaatari appears to remain a place of refuge, filled with people fleeing violence or seeking services, at least a respite from a climate of fear. Still, this could easily change — particularly at the point when the situation seems safe enough for large numbers of refugees to return to their home areas. Then, the feelings of anger and frustration that have built up in the camp may be rekindled, or even turned against new targets. It is a situation that governments and NGOs planning for return would do well to consider.

Nicholas Seeley is a freelance journalist who has lived in Amman, Jordan since 2004. Translations for this article were provided by Kate Washington and Mohammad Sarsak.

Nicholas Seeley is a freelance reporter who has covered the last two major refugee crises in Jordan. His latest publication is the Kindle Single "A Syrian Wedding," which follows a young couple trying to get married in the Zaatari camp.

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