Syria's Refugees Are Wedged Between Hells

By Giles Duley

I first met war photographer Giles Duley a month ago, to talk about his work both before and after he became a triple amputee in Afghanistan. Giles's most recent trip since we spoke was to Jordan, where he documented the arrival of Syrian refugees after a long journey across the border. Here's his account of new arrivals to the Zaatari Camp. – Jamie Collins

The nights become so bitterly cold that I’ve taken shelter in a portakabin staffed by UNHCR doctors. We sit, sipping tea, fighting our tiredness, waiting. It’s nearly 1 AM and there's still no sign of any refugees arriving. Restless, I go outside to join my colleagues, who are sharing a cigarette in the starless night. Suddenly we are silent. In the distance we can hear buses and then out of that cold dark night they start to arrive. The first to appear is a young girl, maybe five years old, dressed in a cream coat walking with a purpose beyond her years, followed by two young mothers clasping their children, wrapped tightly in blankets to protect them from the cold. They make their way into the large military-style reception tent where they will be processed, fed, given medical attention, and finally allocated their own plot within Zaatari Camp.

I watch as more and more arrive—tens, hundreds and, by dawn, nearly 2,000. There's man wearing a suit, holding his kid’s hand; an elderly couple struggling to carry their meagre possessions; a pregnant woman in tears; a young man carried across the rough ground in his wheelchair. Each face seems haunted and etched with exhaustion, uncertainty, and fear. The scenes are reminiscent of so many earlier wars, faded black and white images of civilians uprooted and forced to flee with only what they carry. But this is not some terrible past, this is happening now and the war grows more violent and brutal each day.

The numbers are almost beyond comprehension. More than 70,000 people killed, over four million displaced, and more than one million refugees registered by the UNHCR. In Jordan alone, there are 340,000 refugees, many in the tented Zaatari. This number is expected to rise to over one million by the end of the year.

Those with chronic or war-related disabilities face the greatest challenges. Often fearful of receiving treatment in government hospitals, they have little option but to flee Syria. While charities, such as Handicap International, are able to provide physiotherapy and some support, the realities of living in a refugee camp with a disability are hard to overcome. Many choose to leave the camp and to privately rent homes in the area. However, rents have nearly trebled, funds are limited and many properties are unsuitable.

Over the following days I meet and photograph some of the refugees, listening to their stories. Men, women and children who are the individuals behind the numbers, everyday people who have lost everything, all control of their lives, who now face a bleak future as refugees. No home, food insecurity, unable to work, unable to attend school, with limited medical care and often with extended families to support. For this to be their only option, one can’t help but think what hell they must have left behind.

This conflict is unbearably complex, with answers hard to come by and rightly debated. Yet while we ponder the rights and wrongs of arming the Free Syrian Army, talk of the red line that will be crossed with the use of chemical weapons, and discuss the ramifications of intervention, it seems we are missing the one simple truth. Each day, innocent civilians are being killed, maimed, and forced into a refugee’s life. We should prioritize their protection and support without debate.

Zaatari Camp, Jordan. 30th March, 2013.

Follow Giles on Twitter @gilesduley

Check out some more of his work by clicking here

And learn a little more about him by reading this:

I Spoke to the Photographer Who Got Blown Up in Afghanistan and then Went Back

And read more stuff from VICE on Syria:

The VICE Guide to Syria 

Gunrunning with the Free Syrian Army

Road to Ruin

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