The Zaatari Refugee Camp sprawls across the featureless, colorless desert of northern Jordan, six miles from the border with Syria, a country torn limb from limb by civil war. Among its 120,000 residents, the conventional wisdom had long been the same as in Washington, D.C: Surely, the fall of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is inevitable and imminent; once that happens, the displaced can go home. But on June 5th, Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon defeated Syrian rebel forces in the strategic city of Qusayr. “Now, the refugees are saying, ‘The rebellion is not succeeding, we can’t return, we will have to stay.’ Psychologically and practically, this is a significant change.”
Telling me this is Kilian Kleinschmidt, a burly 50-year-old Berliner, employed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. For the past three months, he has been the camp’s senior field coordinator -- the “mayor,” he half-jokes. We are sitting in Kleinschmidt’s office, a white, metal, prefab “caravan.” He is an old pro who has run refugee camps in tough corners of the world before: Kenya, Pakistan, the Congo, and Somalia among them.
“It was better even in Mogadishu,” he says. “There, at least, I knew who were my friends and who were my enemies. Here, it’s a 10,000-piece puzzle. This is an unhappy place. And it’s a very dangerous place. There are some bad people here and they are holding everyone else hostage.”
Among those bad people: thieves, vandals, counterfeiters, rapists, drug-traffickers, smugglers, youth gangs, “mafias” and “revolutionaries.” As to the last category, Kleinschmidt says: “I’m not yet equipped to map out their ideologies.” But he has seen the flags of both the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al Nusra, an al Qaeda affiliate.
Most of those living here have lost family members and property. Despite such traumas, or perhaps because of them, they are quick to express grievances, and their protests frequently spiral into riots. “We have a lot of violence both among the refugees and with the staff,” Kleinschmidt says matter-of-factly. “We had six staff injured just last week. I still have a sore throat from the teargas.”
Jordanian policemen have been assigned to maintain order in Zaatari. Success has eluded them. “About six weeks ago, two policemen were killed and 12 injured,” Kleinschmidt notes. “One was dragged from his car and hit with rocks.”
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