Inside Syria’s cauldron of despair

Published in The Mail on Sunday (March 10th, 2013)

As she sat inside a huge hangar, Nagham recalled the moment when any last vestiges of childhood innocence were blown away in the most brutal manner possible.

The terrible shelling that  torments so many Syrians had stopped, giving her beloved uncle the chance to visit her grandparents in their village not far from Damascus airport. He returned soon after with Nagham’s young cousin perched on his shoulders.

Almost instantly, this happy family scene was shattered by the sound of shooting, then furious banging on the door from a group of shabiha – the pro-government thugs accused of some of the most savage atrocities since the civil war erupted.

‘They were knocking so hard they almost broke the door of our house,’ said 11-year-old Nagham quietly  as she sat beside me in her pink jumper and jeans.

‘We were so scared of these people. Then they dragged my uncle out of the house and shot him in front of our eyes as we watched through the windows. I was crying so much – it was so frightening, so horrible.’

This shameful murder of a man in front of his nieces and nephews took place on the first day of  Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims. Since then, Nagham’s life has slid from bad to worse. Today she is homeless, exiled in a foreign land, her family torn apart.

Her sad story reflects how a revolution that started amid optimistic hopes of overthrowing a corrupt despot has descended into a grotesque tragedy that scars the Middle East.

Syria lies devastated, its ancient markets and monuments destroyed while tens of thousands of people have been killed and one million more have fled the carnage and chaos, creating a ripple of tensions around a volatile region.

 Shortly after the revolution flared, I spent five days undercover talking to brave young protesters who were risking their liberty and lives for democracy.Now, nearly two years later, I found myself talking to victims of their idealism, which ignited a vicious civil war that has also become a complex sectarian conflict involving other nations.

I met Nagham in a white aluminium warehouse over the border in Jordan that holds some of the human flotsam and jetsam trapped on the cruel tide of this war. Bedraggled families who had just escaped the bloodshed sat in huddled heaps on the rocky floor, their few remaining possessions in bags beside them while they waited to be given official status as refugees.

Nagham and some 40 others from her village were among 1,467 exiles who had arrived over the past 24 hours at Zaatari, a sprawling refugee camp built on barren land under the wing of the United Nations. Often, twice that number turn up in a day.

Zaatari was created last July to contain the waves of Syrians pouring over the border. Designed to hold a maximum of 60,000, there are now more than 150,000 in what has effectively become Jordan’s sixth-biggest city. Two more sites are planned.

With another 180,000 registered refugees in Jordan and about the same numbers unregistered – increasing the nation’s population by perhaps ten per cent – new arrivals crossing the border are met by the military and placed in the camp.

Similar numbers are flowing into Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. Three-quarters are women and children – and as many people have fled since December as in the first 20 months of conflict, underlining how events in Syria are spiralling out of control.

The story of the 40 villagers from near the airport is all too typical. Two months ago, forces from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) captured an army checkpoint there for two days before it was taken back by troops loyal to President Bashar Assad.

Soon after, a large force of Iranian soldiers razed the villagers’ homes in reprisal. ‘We were not with any side but we have lost everything,’ said Amereh al-Khateeb, 42, a mother of seven whose husband remains in Syria with one son.

‘We have only these clothes we are wearing and this one blanket,’ she said, gesturing to the grey felt cloth we sat upon. ‘We feel so helpless.’

The group said they spent the past two months sleeping in fields and abandoned houses, trying to keep one step ahead of the fighting. They spoke of constant shelling and aerial bombardment. A 12-year-old boy told me of watching a tank try to kill them.

When the children fell sick with chest conditions, they decided to flee and an armed truck driver agreed to take them from Damascus to the border, forcing them to hand over their last cash – about £870.

They hoped the camp would offer some comfort, but Nagham’s father has already decided the family should  return to Syria after seeing conditions there.

‘I don’t want to go back because I am scared for my children but I must go if my husband returns,’ said Nagham’s mother, a 32-year-old schoolteacher. ‘We did not think it would be like this here. If we stay we will all die of sickness and disease.’

Certainly there is little welcoming about the makeshift city of tents and shelters that has sprung up on the desert sand. Within minutes of arrival I was covered in dust. Winter nights are freezing, summer days are baking and it floods after it rains.

With numbers growing fast and international aid pledges yet to be met, relief groups admit they are struggling. Daily food rations have been cut, supplies of blankets are dwindling and only a fraction of the children are being taught. Communal toilets – many daubed with graffiti declaring ‘Bashar Assad’s office’ on the door – are unsavoury.

This is the biggest challenge I have faced in 20 years,’ said Andrew Harper, head of the UN’s humanitarian mission and a veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo. ‘But we can’t afford to fail. The consequences are just too big to consider.’

Although Zaatari’s ‘high street’  is lined with rudimentary shops,  competition for supplies among  desperate families has led to a crime surge, while there are black markets in food, water and housing. Queues for bread start at 4am.

The waves of recent arrivals included Akram Mahamed, 32, who was carried towards the border by rebels after a missile blew up the bus he was driving and injured his right leg. Four people died in the attack.

The father of eight, whose youngest child was born six weeks ago in a hastily built field hospital, was also unhappy with the camp. ‘I have been here ten days but have not even  been able to get a mattress,’ he said.

Such tensions regularly explode, as I saw on Thursday afternoon. As I talked to UN officials, there was a commotion outside. A gas canister used for cooking had blown up, injuring two children and burning down about 50 tents.

Water tankers rushed to douse the flames, then disconsolate families picked through charred remains of their ‘homes’. Only metal plates and children’s marbles survived – another brutal blow for people who have lost so much already.

One man showed me a ruined copy of the Koran, while a mother stood among the ashes weeping, a pile of scorched nappies and sodden blankets in the mud beneath her feet.

An angry crowd – with some men holding poles – marched in protest at conditions on the offices of the UN refugee agency, breaking windows. Five cars – including my driver’s Kia – were attacked, their windows smashed and bodywork dented.

Later that day, I smiled at a small boy holding a big yellow doll under his arm. His pregnant mother, Zaneb, invited me inside their tent. As she lifted the flap to their spartan abode, immaculate but empty beyond mattresses, matting and a few clothes, tears began streaming down her face.

‘Every day I cry,’ said Zaneb, not bothering to wipe them away. ‘We cannot smile and we cannot laugh any longer. How can we go on living like this?’ Zaneb has been in the camp for five months. Her husband is in Syria fighting with the FSA.

‘It feels like our nation has swallowed a knife with two sides,’ she said. ‘But they are all Syrian people – our families, our friends are on both sides. All we really want is peace.’

That seems a long way off in her maimed nation. It is two years since the revolution was sparked when security forces arrested and beat democracy campaigners for spraying a  revolutionary slogan on a wall.

The violent reaction of Assad, the nerdy-looking ophthalmologist married to a glamorous London-born banker, turned pro-democracy protests into an armed uprising as he made it clear he and his corrupt clique would stop at nothing to cling on to power.

The country has since descended into the darkest horrors of civil war. Atrocities and human rights abuses have been committed by both sides, with children slaughtered, women raped and medical units targeted. The economy and public services have collapsed.

The United Nations is restrained from intervening or imposing proper sanctions by Russia’s unforgivable support for Assad, their long-standing ally in the region. 

Now there are rising fears over the impact of the Syrian implosion on such a fragile region. Lebanon has long been threatened by instability while the border area with Israel has always been tense.

Even Jordan – for many years a beacon of stability – is facing difficulties absorbing such a huge influx despite its laudable response in keeping borders open and trying to provide healthcare and education. Prices for fuel and housing have been forced up, while the cost of hosting so many refugees already represents an estimated 20 per cent of domestic revenues.

Talking to Jordanians, it does not take long for resentments bubbling below the surface to escape. ‘Of course we are sympathetic,’ said one government official. ‘But we don’t have enough water and energy. Why should we be victims of their war?’

With every day, Syria’s savage conflict grows more unbearable for its people and more dangerous for the Middle East.

It is hard to quibble with the words of Nagham, the girl who saw her uncle slain, as she told me so quietly how she was fed up with the fighting, the starvation, the cold nights. ‘I just want the regime to fall so that I can go home,’ she said. ‘My life was so much better in the past.’


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