ZATAARI, Jordan (AP) — No longer vulnerable to bombings, gunfire and mortar attacks in their homeland, Syrian refugees in Jordan’s new tent camp now face a new challenge: snakes, scorpions and dust storms.
Some contend that’s not much of an improvement.
“Death camp,” says the sign in Arabic stuck on a white tent bearing the U.N. refugee agency’s blue emblem.
“In Syria, it’s a quick death,” explained a refugee who gave his name as Abu Sami, as he and other Syrians gathered to protest the conditions at Jordan’s first tent camp for Syrians fleeing the civil war.
“But here in Zataari camp, it’s a slow death for us all,” said the 30-year-old former taxi driver from Daraa, where the Syrian revolution ignited 17 months ago demanding President Bashar Assad’s ouster. “We escaped shelling and bombardment of our homes and now face this torment.”
Jordan says sudden surges in refugees filled all available housing in its communities along the tree-lined frontier, forcing it to hastily build this tent city some 11 kilometers (seven miles) south of the Syrian border. Jordan has absorbed more than 150,000 Syrians seeking shelter over the past year.
Until recently, clans that straddle the border took in some of the Syrians, and aid groups arranged for other refugees to share housing. For months, authorities appeared reluctant to set up the camp, possibly to avoid angering Assad’s autocratic regime with images of large numbers of civilians fleeing his military onslaught.
They have also been concerned by signs that Assad’s regime was trying to extend its crackdown into Jordan itself. Both Jordanian officials and the Syrian refugees believe Syrian regime agents are operating in the kingdom on a campaign to hunt down opponents, particularly activists, and intimidate those who have fled.
Refugees who once stayed in an apartment complex used as an initial processing center and owned by a Jordanian businessman reported two attempts earlier this year to poison their water supply.
The complex had to be abandoned after security officials arrested a man in June for trying to plant a bomb under the car of the Jordanian owner of the complex, Nidal Bashabsheh, who had been actively helping Syrian refugees.
Late last month, a 6-year-old Syrian boy was shot and killed by the Syrian military as he made the treacherous bordering crossing with his family.
But as fighting rages in Syria’s two largest cities, Aleppo and Damascus, an increasing number of Syrians are fleeing here and to other neighboring countries. On Saturday night alone, a reported 4,000 Syrians arrived in Jordan.
To accommodate them, the Zataari camp opened July 29 on this desolate desert plain, where some 3,300 displaced Syrians now put up with torrid heat by day and chilling cold at night. The Jordanian government runs the camp and provides food and other provisions, while the UN helped set it up with tents, blankets and other supplies.
Unrelenting dust-laden winds whip through the camp, covering everything and everyone in sight with a coating of fine orange particles. Most people say they can neither breathe easily nor stay relatively clean and healthy.
Um Nadia, a 26-year-old pregnant mother of two toddlers, suffers from pre-existing asthma and worries for her health and that of her family. “Listen to my voice. I’m suffering. I’m constantly coughing,” she said.
“I can’t stand it anymore and that’s only after three days here. I’m very sick from the weather and this dust,” the slender woman said, her voice raspy, adding that she had to be fed intravenously in the camp’s medical clinic.
“But what about my young children?” she asked. “They will surely contract bronchitis or some other sort of disease themselves.”
“We’re happy to have safety here in Jordan,” said Abu Kamal, a 40-year-old worker, who with his large family made an arduous 17-hour journey on foot from Syria’s easternmost point of Deir el-Zour to the camp.
Calling the escape “extremely dangerous,” he said they would have never made it out alive without the help of the rebel Free Syrian Army. “But we killed two scorpions and snakes when we entered the tents at Zataari.”
“This place is not suitable for children. We have a 20-day-old baby,” he said, pointing nearby to a boy nestled in the arms of a woman who held a handkerchief near his face. “Where is it safe to put him? He could die.”
Insufficient electricity and lighting at the camp leaves residents worried about their safety or even going out at night to use a toilet. Many also noted that they were unable to stay in contact with loved ones or hear the latest news because of a lack of mobile phone reception at the camp.
Other complaints sounded more like mere inconveniences. Monotonous meals of rice with some chicken or meat are served day after day, without fresh vegetables and fruit craved by the Syrians who are used to a more vegetarian diet.
“We have no fruits or vegetables, but plenty of sand, dust and heat,” said a refugee who gave his name as Abu Khaled, a 37-year-old carpenter. “The only other things we now need are holes for a grave.”
But some residents also alleged that camp workers can be abusive and threatening.
“Those responsible here told us that if we don’t return to our tents and end the protest, they would turn us into the Syrian security services,” said a refugee who gave his name as Abu Ahmed.
“This is not acceptable. We fled death from Assad’s forces and have come seeking refuge from you and you threaten us with this?” said Abu Ahmed, a 40-year-old plumber.
Jordanian authorities refused to respond to the allegations.
The UN refugee agency’s representative to Jordan, Andrew Harper, acknowledged that the tent city’s conditions were not ideal but promised improvements to help ease the challenging conditions.
“It’s a very tough, terrible place to be, but every day we’ll make it better,” he told The Associated Press. “We just need everyone to remain calm and to be sure that we keep moving forward in the right way.”
The camp currently encompasses about 2,000 tents, each designed to fit a family of five into two sections with a very low ceiling. Meals are distributed by van to the individual tents.
There are plans to expand the camp across more of the 9-square-kilometer (3.5-square-mile) stretch of desert so that it will ultimately accommodate up to 115,000 refugees.
UN refugee agency spokesman Ali Bebe said the agency and the Jordanian government are calling on the international community to fund 2,500 prefab units such as trailers.
For the refugees, all this should be a matter of simple hospitality among Arabs.
“We Syrians hosted others who needed our help in years past — Palestinians, Lebanese, Iraqis,” a 16-year-old girl wailed outside one of the tents. “Why are we being treated like this?”
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.