A family from Dara'a, now living in a caravan in Zaatari. "Even the children have forgotten how to smile," the woman remarked to me. (All photos: Max Blumenthal)
I sat inside a dimly lit, ramshackle trailer functioning as a general store for the residents of the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, while a wiry, sad-eyed man named Adbel told me about the massacres that drove him from his hometown. Dragging deeply on a cigarette, Abdel described how army forces rained shells down on his neighborhood in Deir Ba'alba, a district in Homs, over five months ago, pounding the town over and over. Then he told me how government thugs barged into homes at 6 am, methodically slashing his neighbors to death with long knives, leaving fields irrigated with the blood of corpses, a nightmarish scene that looked much like this. Like nearly everyone I interviewed in the camp, he described his experience in clinical detail, with a flat tone and a blank expression, masking continuous trauma behind stoicism.
As Abdel mashed his cigarette into a tin ashtray and reached to light another, a woman appeared at the shop window with three young children. She said she had no money and had not been able to purchase baby formula for three days. She had trudged to hospitals across the camp seeking help and was turned away at each stop. Without hesitation, the shop owner, a burly middle-aged man also from Homs, pulled a can of formula off a shelf and handed it over to the woman. She made no promise to pay him back, and he did not ask for one. Like so many in the camp, she left Syria with nothing and now depends on the charity of others for her survival. In a human warehouse of 120,000, the fourth-largest population center in Jordan and the second-largest refugee camp in the world, where few can leave and even fewer are able to enter, the woman's desperate existence was not an exception but the rule.
"We're in a prison right now," Abdel told me. "We can't do anything. And the minute we try to have a small demonstration, even peacefully, [Jordanian soldiers] throw tear gas at us."
"Guantanamo!" the shop owner bellows.
Water is available to camp residents primarily through these tanks, provided by international aid agencies.
None of the dozens of adults I interviewed in the camp would allow me to report their full names or photograph their faces. If they return to Syria with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad still intact, they fear brutal recriminations. Many have already survived torture, escaped from prisons or defected from Assad's army.
"With all the bloodshed, the killing of people who did not even join the resistance, Bashar only wanted to teach us one lesson: That we are completely weak and he is our god," a woman from Dara'a in her early 60s told me. "His goal is to demolish our spirit so we will never rise up again." The woman's sons had spent four months under sustained torture for defecting to the Free Syrian Army. She does not know where they are now, only that they are back in the field, battling Assad's forces in a grinding stalemate that has taken somewhere around 100,000 lives.
When news of the August 21 chemical attacks that left hundreds dead in the Ghouta region east of Damascus reached Zaatari, terror and dread spiked to unprecedented levels. Many residents repeated to me the rumors spreading through the camp that Bashar would douse them in sarin gas as soon as he crushed the last vestiges of internal resistance -- a kind of genocidal victory celebration. When President Barack Obama announced his intention to launch punitive missile strikes on Syria, however, a momentary sense of hope began to surge through the camp. Indeed, there was not one person I spoke to in Zaatari who did not demand US military intervention at the earliest possible moment.
"We follow the news minute by minute," Abdel told me. "The whole camp's opinion is in favor of a strike. Nobody wants the country to be hit. I swear we don't like it. But with the kind of injustice we have seen, we just wish for the hit to put an end to the massacres. We feel strange because we're wishing for something that we have never wished for before. But it's the lesser of two evils."
"Just do it, Obama! What are you waiting for?" an elderly woman in a tent on the other side of the camp remarked to me. "Hit him today and bring down the whole country -- we have no problem with that. We just want to go back. Besides, the country is so destroyed, even if Obama's strike destroys houses, we can rebuild them again."
Mansour, a 7-year-old, was held at gunpoint by regime forces when his father was arrested. They were reunited in Zaatari, where Mansour is desperate to receive a caravan for his family.
Inside every canvas tent and corrugated tin caravan I visited across the gravelly wasteland of Zaatari, this is what residents told me: We have no future if Bashar is allowed to remain in power, and he is not going anywhere unless the United States intervenes. Like most Americans, I am staunchly against US strikes, mainly because I believe they could exacerbate an already horrific situation without altering the political reality in any meaningful way. The Obama administration has made clear that its "unbelievably small" strikes would not be not aimed at toppling Assad but only, as Obama said, to send a "shot across the bow." However, I believe that the refugees trapped in Zaatari deserve to be heard. In the geopolitical chessmatch outside powers are waging over their country, their voices have been virtually ignored. Yet it is they who will have to face the direct consequences of any outcome of outside intervention.
When I asked the refugees of Zaatari about alternatives to US intervention like a massive international aid effort, or the Russian-brokered deal to confiscate the Syrian regime's chemical weapons supply, I was immediately dismissed. "Just hit Assad and leave us to take care of ourselves!" a 65-year-old man from Dara'a snapped at me.
The only criticisms I heard about US intervention were directed at Obama for dithering and telegraphing his punches. The camp's residents are in constant contact with friends and family from back home, and have been hearing reports of a mass movement of military equipment. A mother of three from the rural town of Salamieh who fled after a massacre in April told me a Syrian army commander recently promised her hometown aid and improved services if residents allowed him to stash a division of tanks inside its residential areas. "The [US] hit was so delayed that now all Bashar's tanks have been moved into civilian areas and if they do hit the targets they're all empty," she complained.
All the cheerleading for intervention was not merely a product of practical interests; it was the reflection of fresh wounds, and not only the psychological kind. Besides the traumatic stress disorder that afflicted the entire camp, shrapnel scars pockmarked the bodies of many of residents, including children. Perhaps the only thing guarding Zaatari from slipping into an abyss of nihilism was the promise of return.