ZAATARI – The Khamsin is what they call the desert wind that blows in gusts, blocking your sight with an opaque fog, burning your eyes and lungs at the same time. Scruffy-looking kids are pushing makeshift carts through the mini windstorm, piles of clothes and kitchen tools almost falling off them, as ghost-like figures of men and women emerge from the swirl of dust, heading towards unknown places.
The Jordanian town of Zaatari depicts a weak, swarming mass of humanity that has crossed the border from Syria, putting to the test this nation’s legendary hospitality.
“Considering this country is home to just six million people, it’s a considerable effort for them to harbor 500,000 refugees," says Patrice Dumont Saint-Priest, the French head of a medical aid group Tamour. "Could you imagine France with 5.4 million refugees?”
The Hashemite kingdom’s attitude towards the recurrent flux of refugees throughout the years –from Palestine then Iraq- has always been generous, but it’s not the only thing that strikes us in Zaatari.
Back in Amman, Ayman Arabeyat, from the Jordanian interior ministry, had warned us: “Stay alert, it’s become a dangerous place. Last time I went there, my car windows were all smashed by people throwing rocks!”
It didn't take long to confirm his preoccupation: as we arrived at the camp entrance, we noticed that every window of the checkpoint were broken. Even the people in charge of humanitarian organizations and the security forces agree on this point. Zaatari camp for the Syrian refugees is home to 110,000 people. It has largely become a lawless place where local mafias are enforcing their own justice, and violent demonstrations have become more and more common.
But this situation won’t last, at least that is the plan. Colonel Zaher Abu Shehab heads a unit of about 500 policemen in charge of border security and, in theory, the camp itself. He has sworn to “enforce Jordanian law,” in what used to be a 12-square-kilometer no man’s land.
Shehab says that since 90% of the refugees were from the same place – Deraa, a Syrian city a few kilometers north of the border - they wanted to create neighborhood committees. "So we let them do just that, but then people started complaining more and more,” he said. The complaints? The emergence of gang leaders and illicit trafficking.
The Colonel acknowledged the fact that “they received humanitarian aid, and were not distributing it back equally between the people.” That was an understatement. The UN organizations provided tents, bags of rice, sugar and flour which were then sold back to the highest bidder, sometimes a few yards away from the distribution centers. Kilian Tobias Kleinschmidt, coordinator for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) noted that the gangs were also reselling water and electricity, organizing prostitution, perpetrating sexual harassment and even rape after nightfall.
Kleinschmidt strides through the camp with confidence, but says he stays careful too. He's given himself four months to bring order back into this camp. “There is not even a hint of hierarchy, the clan leaders tend to believe they are still in Syria!”
“It has some of the characteristics of a Brazilian favela shantytown,” observed the UNHCR coordinator. You have to take this camp as if it was a city, with a dozen different districts, Jordanian state employees and “police stations,” streets and addresses.
“I’m the mayor of Zaatari now,” he quips. On the “Champs-Elysées,” the main street, series of shops and stalls have been installed. The owners pay a tax to the gang leaders who may extort up to 1000 euros. Grilled chicken shop owner Hassan has no complaints. He buys his poultry at two Jordanian dinars (a little over 2 euros) a piece and sells them back at 4.50 dinars. At the end of the months, he’s 6000 euros richer!
“We are currently teaching lessons to the bad guys: we will step on your turf and cut ourselves a slice of what you make,” says Kleinschmidt.
The local mafiosi have names: Abu Ghassem, Abu Hawad, Abu Khalil, Abu Salim. The punishment remains to be delivered. Colonel Abu Shehab assures us that sanctions will be taken and that a prosecutor and 200 policemen will settle within the camp and that violence will be punished, though rather carefully. “We won’t use brute force, these are still refugees.”
They are indeed refugees, but they are hard to keep an eye on. Zaatari is a “town” of transit. For the 1,500 to 2,000 refugees flowing in everyday at the border, three or four buses of them -- about 300 people -- are going back to Syria. The ones returning are families who were told by neighbors that their region was safe again; peasants eager to look after their crops or cattle. There are also the fighters, some of whom have had injuries patched up, heading back to the frontline.
The buses stop at the border and those going back to their homes have to continue by foot from there, helped by the silent coordination of the Jordanian army and the Syrian state army or, depending on the areas and the moments, the Free Syrian Army rebels.