Syrian refugees ponder life after Assad


Amid swirling sand, life goes on as cafes are set up and Syrians avail of medical aid

CLOUDS OF dust rise with the passage of every vehicle along the narrow, rutted road to al-Zaatari camp and engulf the line of newcomers waiting to be admitted.

An armoured scout car stands sentinel outside the gate of the fenced enclosure; a cheerful soldier waves us through. Our passes, issued by the interior ministry, are checked at the office of the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation, which runs the camp. On average 300-500 Syrians come daily, says Dr Karim, co-ordinator for the Moroccan Field Hospital where refugees can be treated for everything from sunburn to gunshot and shrapnel wounds and trauma.

Since it was set up, the hospital has received 20,000 visits from patients and delivered 25 babies. The most popular treatment tents, arranged neatly around a rectangular courtyard, are for paediatrics and skin complaints.

“Syrians are fair people, they cannot take exposure to the sun,” he says. Residential tents, once white but now dyed red by desert dust, are pitched along streets. Makeshift shelters built of aluminium rods and plastic sheeting stamped with the letters UNHCR – the UN High Commission for Refugees – serve as shops. Each neighbourhood is supplied with chemical toilets and blue breeze-block compounds with showers. Taps on outer walls drip water into puddles. Laundry dries on lines strung between tents.

Three young women, headscarved and in elegant, spotless caftans, greet me. They are from the town of Taibeh, in Deraa province. Sand forces them to turn away and cover their mouths. “The sand and dust are our curse,” asserts Mariam, as we arrange cement blocks in the shadow of a tent. “No chairs,” shrugs Sawsan (22), a mother of two. Yisra has four children, Mariam one boy, Qusay, who insists he is eight but is, in fact, nine. Time is lost here: there is little to do. The charity provides two cooked meals a day in take-away cartons and ingredients for supper for all 30,000 residents. By the year’s end, the number will be 60,000.

“We will cut off Bashar’s head, if we get a chance,” says Sawsan, with a smile. This is the Zaatari refrain. If Assad steps down, would you accept vice-president Farouk al-Sharaa, as Turkey proposes? I ask. “Yes,” they reply. Sharaa is from Deraa and, it is believed, has no blood on his hands. One of the men who joins us says “50-50 for Sharaa”.

I try out names of opposition figures. They shrug to all but Manaf Tlass, a close friend of the president, who defected in July. “Not, Tlass, he’s a millionaire.”

Muhammad, an army conscript who fought against the rebels in the terrible battle of the Baba Amr suburb of Homs, says: “I spent seven months in prison because I am from Deraa.” He does not elaborate.

As I depart, Mariam stuffs my jacket pockets with a packet of biscuits and a small carton of juice: “You are our guest.”

The Syrian entrepreneurial spirit remains strong. Children squat along the track bisecting the camp selling cigarettes, plastic jugs and kerosene lamps.

Five days after Ibrahim Naimi arrived, he opened a cafe made of metal supports covered with plastic sheeting. He serves coffee, tea and water pipes to 50 people a day. “In Syria I ran a cafe in a prison,” he says. “People pay in Syrian, Jordanian, dollars, euros, whatever they have.”

His family is originally from the Golan, occupied by Israel in 1967.