The first thing visitors notice about the largest refugee camp caused by Syria’s civil war is how many children live in it. Within a few seconds of entering the perimeters of Zaatari, in Jordan, crowds of youngsters appear.
Some are injured or seriously ill, many are under-nourished, and — despite some being no more than toddlers with little concept of what is happening around them — all appear constantly scared.
They have good reason to be too — the sprawling desert settlement has a population the size of Sevenoaks and is getting bigger every day. Of the 115,000 people who have arrived in the past few months, some 60 per cent are under 18. All have had their day-to-day family life taken away from them along with their schools and hopes because of a catastrophic conflict which is now well into its second year.
“We just want to go home,” said Hiba, a 14-year-old from the all-but destroyed city of Homs who spoke to me from the flimsy tent she shares with her mother and six siblings. “Fighting and killing forced us to get out of Syria. We have some teaching here, but there is no proper school.”
Amal, a 27-year-old mother, said she cannot breastfeed her six-month old daughter Safa because of the trauma.
“We have escaped constant air strikes and firing from rooftops and children being cut to pieces in the street, but the agony continues,’ said Amal. UN humanitarian agencies and charities such as Islamic Relief and Save the Children are doing an outstanding job providing food, water and medical supplies, but the mass of humanity arriving daily is threatening to become too much to cope with.
Around 500,000 displaced Syrians are in Jordan, which has a population of 6.5 million. If trends continue, then the number of Syrians is predicted to reach 1.2 million by the end of the year. Jordan was forced briefly to close its northern border with Syria about 10 days ago meaning the victims of Bashar Assad’s regime could not escape. Zaatari is five miles from Syria, and there are clear signs that it has become a permanent outpost of the war.
Knife fights between rival gangs break out regularly, while other crimes including rape are also being reported with disturbing frequency.
Despite the size of the camp, there is no controlling authority — law and order is almost impossible to impose.
“We are just a short distance from the war, and the mentality of violence and hate persists,” said Kilian Kleinschmidt, of the UN Refugee Agency.
The European Union allowed a Syrian arms embargo to expire last week. Calls for action will increase now that it has been established that the nerve gas Sarin is being used.
In the meantime, the children of Syria will continue to have their once peaceful lives altered out of all recognition in camps like Zaatari.