ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — It is 10 a.m. in Carson City and 9 p.m. here in northern Jordan, and my two bodyguards have ordered me to leave this notorious hellhole at once.
I have just spent four hours at the United Nations’ infamous Zaatari Refugee Camp about 5 miles south of the Syrian-Jordanian border, and my plainclothes minders, a lieutenant and sergeant of the Darak, Jordan’s gendarmerie or police, say it’s too dangerous for me to remain.
“Nightfall is approaching, and that is when the criminals in the camp come out of the shadows to steal and hurt people.
“So you must go now,” the lieutenant said as he and the other officer led me to my car through the camp’s razor-topped fence, past a half-dozen Jordanian army tanks and armored cars and a squad of soldiers carrying shotguns, machine guns and sidearms.
During my visit to Zaatari, I learned that this frightful place is packed with an estimated 125,000 refugees who fled the bloody civil war in Syria, and they have terrible tales to tell of oppression, torture, rape, poison gas attacks and killings by the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.
Most of the refugees are penniless and have little more than the clothes on their backs and a few personal items they managed to snatch before leaving their homes and arriving here by foot, bus, truck, taxi, hitchhiking or a handful of private vehicles.
Although they are now safe from the escalating war in their homeland, they face new challenges at Zaatari. They have nowhere else to go. Lawlessness is prevalent. Many are ill, particularly the children who make up half the camp’s population and suffer acute malnutrition, infections, chronic diarrhea and a host of other maladies.
The heat is oppressive. Flies and mosquitoes are everywhere. The refugees, who live in massive, ramshackle tents or dilapidated, prefabricated trailers, shield their faces from the blowing sand with towels and scarves as they aimlessly roam the camp’s dirt paths, line up for food rations, tote pots and pans filled with water supplied from water trucks, do their laundry, tend their children or sit in the shade, staring through the high barbed-wire fence toward the blindingly white sands of the Jordanian desert.
Many of the refugees are eager to tell foreign journalists about their gruesome lives in Syria.
“Our family lived in a suburb south of Damascus. One day Assad’s soldiers came and blew up houses on our street. My house caught fire and fell to the ground. Part of the roof fell on me and injured my arms and leg,” one man told me, pointing to bandages covering his three limbs.
“Some of the women on my street were raped by Assad’s men,” added another man who was listening to our conversation.
Zaatari has become Jordan’s fifth-largest city in terms of population. Both sides of its littered, unpaved and dusty main street contain chaotic collections of stalls that sell tea, cakes, candy and gum, fruits, ice cream, used clothes and shoes, freshly slaughtered chickens, diapers and even live birds to those who have money to spend.
There are 10 mosques and several hospitals and aid stations scattered around the camp. The medical facilities are operated by Doctors Without Borders, the Moroccan Army and the governments of Saudi Arabia, The Emirates, France, Germany, Great Britain and Jordan, said United Nations High Commission on Refugees official Gazi Alsarhan. He added that funding for the camp’s operations is provided by many nations, including the United States.
“My doctors and nurses and those at the other hospitals work around the clock. We treat many injuries caused by the war in Syria. Hundreds of babies have been born at our hospitals, and hundreds of women will soon be giving birth. We also treat many children. The hospitals’ electricity is supplied by portable generators, which also supply much of the camp,” said the uniformed major in charge of the Moroccan hospital.
It’s the crime, however, that particularly frightens everyone who lives and works at Zaatari.
Jobless, alienated male teenagers and young men are the culprits, I was told by Alsarhan as he and my pair of guards escorted me down the camp’s main street, which has sarcastically been nicknamed the “Champs-Elysees.”
During our stroll I noted scores of these disenchanted youngsters lounging about. Several shot surly looks at me, shouting out epithets and displaying obscene hand gestures. Children, however, cast smiles in my direction and begged me to take their photographs.
“These young criminals you see in Zaatari will rob you any chance they have. They do most of their damages at night ... stealing from other refugees, throwing rocks at people and breaking into tents and trailers to steal money, beds and clothes,” I was informed by a UN camp worker who asked that he not be identified.
“Some weeks ago a gang of young men started a riot and the police had to use tear gas on them. A few days ago one of them threw a large rock at a policeman who was taken to a hospital in Amman with critical injuries. The youngsters take to crime because they have nowhere to go and have nothing to do. There also are spies in the camp who report back to Bashar Assad’s secret police. Things have gotten so bad that some refugees have left the camp and returned to Syria,” he said.
The sun was going down when I drove off, and as I looked across the empty desert I was reminded of the past civilizations that have inhabited this inhospitable place.
Just 2 miles east of here lies the “lost city” of Umm el-Jimal, discovered by Princeton University archeologists in 1905. It contains blackish-blue stone ruins of forts and settlements dating to the first century A.D. that were established, successively, by the Nabateans, Romans, Greeks, Byzantines and Islamics.
And not far from Zaatari is the site of a British military base and airfield built in the early 20th century that later became a regional headquarters for the Arab Legion during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.
This land in Jordan’s bleak Hauran Desert has seen strife and death for more than 2,000 years, and I am sure it will remain a sorrowful place for many years to come.
David C. Henley, former publisher of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard, traveled for a month in Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian territories.