ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan (AFP) – Angry refugees Thursday urged the United States to do more to end the war in Syria as they met top U.S. diplomat John Kerry during a landmark visit to the Zaatari camp in Jordan.
Kerry first overflew the camp by helicopter, surveying thousands of tents and trailers lined up on the desert sand about 20 kilometres (12.4 miles) from the Syrian border in what has now become the fifth largest city in Jordan.
“The stories that I’ve just heard and the people I’ve just met put a real face on the level of the humanitarian crisis and it underscores the urgency of the international community, one in helping to take of these people, but two helping to bring an end to this crisis,” Kerry said.
He met with six refugees and was briefed by the UNHCR camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt, who told of the battle to provide for a tide of humanity crossing the border from Syria into Jordan every day.
“The stories are obviously horrendous. The life is very, very difficult,” Kerry said, after he became the highest-ranking member of the U.S. administration to visit the camp, home to some 115,000 refugees.
The refugees voiced anger and frustration, repeatedly asking Kerry to press Washington to establish buffer and no-fly zones in Syria.
“Where is the international community? What are you waiting for? We hope that you will not go back to the United States before you find a solution to the crisis. At least impose a no-fly zone or an embargo,” said one refugee woman who did not give her name.
“I think the U.S. as a superpower can change the equation in Syria in thirty minutes after you return to Washington,” she added.
A grim-faced Kerry replied: “A lot of different options are under consideration. I wish it was very simple. As you know, we’ve been fighting two wars for 12 years.
“We are trying to help in various ways, including helping Syrian opposition fighters have weapons. We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things but it is not as simple as it sounds.”
But the same woman countered: “Mr. Secretary if the situation remains unchanged until the end of Ramadan this camp will become empty. We will return to Syria and we will fight with knives. You as the U.S. government look to Israel with respect. Cannot you do the same with the children of Syria?”
Kerry assured the group “you are not abandoned. We are very aware of how terrible conditions are inside Syria. I came here today because we are concerned.
“I promise you I will take your voices and concerns back with me to Washington”.
The United States is the largest single donor to Syrian refugees and has already pledged more than $800 million in humanitarian assistance.
The refugees also urged the international community to help put a halt to the flow of weapons from Iran and influx of Lebanese Hezbollah fighters into Syria.
From the air, the camp, which only opened a year ago and costs $1 million a day to run, clearly dwarfed the neighboring villages. There are no trees or bushes to provide shade from the baking Jordanian sun in an area which before last year was just empty scorpion and snake-infested scrubland.
But there are football pitches and a children’s playground aimed at keeping some 60,000 children busy, in a place which is increasingly taking on the drab air of permanency.
“The conflict has reached a level of brutality that is indescribable,” Kleinschmidt told Kerry.
“The stories are horrible,” he said, putting the number of refugees at the seven-square-kilometre (2.8-square-mile) camp at 115,000 — 70 percent of them children and women.
The Red Cross said last week 150,000 Syrian refugees live in Zaatari, a figure backed by Jordanian officials.
“I’m managing a temporary city that is beginning to settle,” Kleinschmidt said, adding there are three hospitals in the camp as well as schools but only 5,000 out of an eligible 30,000 children attend school.
Every day some 12 to 15 babies are born in the camp.
The tiny kingdom says it is playing host to some 550,000 refugees from Syria in camps and in urban areas, but the UNICEF said the latest figures were about 600,000.
The influx of so many people is straining already scant resources such as water and energy and tearing at the Arab nation’s social fabric.
Nearly 1.8 million people are now registered with the United Nations in countries around Syria and an average of 6,000 people a day are fleeing, according to U.N. figures.
Photo Credit: AFP/Mandel Ngan