On the morning of August 21, Mohamed watched rockets fly over his village outside Damascus, Syria's capital. Shortly after the bombs exploded, rumours spread throughout the neighbourhood that the rockets had been loaded with sarin nerve gas and were deployed by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad against the neighborhood because it was a stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the ragtag rebel army established by defected government soldiers who oppose Assad's rule.
Mohamed is a farmer, not a combatant, but he told me he promptly went to a local FSA outpost, where the rebels were giving instructions on how to survive the chemical-weapons attack: "Place cold, wet towels over your face," an FSA soldier had instructed him. "Stay low to the ground. Close all your doors."
But when Mohamed returned to his house, it was too late: two of his children, whom he'd left playing in the garden, were dead.
Mohamed left Syria, and five days later, I met him during my visit to the Za'atari refugee camp in Jordan, about 100 miles from Damascus. The camp was opened in a collaborative effort between the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Jordanian government last July. Since then, Za'atari has become home for the vast numbers of Syrians, like Mohamed, who have fled the violence and trauma of their country's civil war, which began in March 2011.
If the severity of the Syrian conflict can, at least in part, be measured by the number of refugees it has created, the Za'atari camp is a microcosm of just how bad things have gotten across the border: when it opened, Za'atari housed a mere 100 families. Today, it includes 120,000 residents and is the fourth-largest city in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world.
To gain access, I had to pay a Jordanian official who, in return, allowed me to shoot stills and video throughout the camp. He also provided me with a driver and a translator; however, after we drove through the desert and arrived at Za'atari's first checkpoint – about ten miles from the Syrian border – I was told by a different official that a Jordanian police officer would also have to accompany me during my interviews.
Inside a linoleum-tiled, air-conditioned office on the edge of the camp, I argued with even more officials that having a police officer with me would make my interviews uncomfortable and compromise my reporting. To my surprise, they agreed and let me enter without a police escort.
The camp itself is located on a three-square-mile slab in the middle of the desert and surrounded by barbed wire. The first thing I noticed was that it didn't look like the trash-strewn mess I had expected, but instead appeared neat and orderly. All told, Za'atari costs approximately $500,000 per day to run, and it looks it.
When a family arrives, UN workers give them a tent or shipping container to live in, evidenced by the white Conex boxes fashioned into makeshift homes that line the dusty streets. Each day, residents are also given dry and canned goods, water, and bread – an estimated half million pieces are distributed daily – but beyond these essentials, residents are on their own. As I walked around interviewing people and taking photos, I found huge tents selling mobile phones, groceries, even wedding dresses, arranged along boulevards that have basically become public bazaars. As has been widely reported, one of the streets has even been named the Champs-Élysées.
Three hospitals are peppered throughout the camp, and though there have been rumors of rapes, gang activity, and drug dealing as the camp has grown, it's still much safer at Za'atari than, say, inside Syria. Many of the hardships its residents face began well before they arrived at the camp, abandoning the lives they were forced to leave behind: families killed in combat, houses destroyed, careers abandoned. Despite the trauma residents of the camp have experienced, many long to return home, a prospect that, as the civil war intensifies, is becoming increasingly unrealistic.
"Being bombed in Syria is better than being here," a young man named Hussein told me. He claimed that hundreds of people were leaving the camp every day, either to return to Syria and fight, or to flee elsewhere. (The UN doesn't have official statistics regarding departure rates, though they have admitted that they are occurring). "The water they bring us is like red sand," Hussein continued, sighing.
Others I spoke with were leaving the camp optimistic that the US would attack Damascus in the coming days and Assad would eventually be removed from power. Now it appears that Russia and the US have brokered a deal with the Syrians to relinquish their chemical arsenal; in the interim, the refugees in Jordan and elsewhere will be forced to wait it out.
At Za'atari, I met other people who said they were victims of the chemical attacks that the US and other Western nations have blamed on Assad, a charge the Syrian president continues to deny. And while it's impossible to confirm these accounts, meeting these refugees was one of the hardest things I've ever done during my decades of conflict reporting. One woman, who ran an orphanage for kids whose parents have been killed in the war, told me how her husband won't let her turn on the TV anymore because the news accounts of the fighting gives the little ones nightmares. The children, she said, already couldn't sleep most nights.
I met a mother in her small shipping-container house nearby whose anecdote seemed to sum up the situation as succinctly as any I've heard during my two-plus years documenting the war in Syria: She explained to me that there is a school at Za'atari, but it's sparsely attended and many kindergarteners have forgotten the alphabet. They want to play "revolutionary games" instead. "My five-year-old tells me every day that he dreams of carrying a machine gun," she said, "and going back to Syria."
Watch Robert's footage of the Za'atari refugee camp below:
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