Ali al-Bardani and his family fled the horrors of Syria’s civil war for refuge at Zaatari camp in north Jordan. They may now be safe, but they say they live in appalling conditions.
“Life here is very, very difficult… The water tastes bad, canned food gives us stomach pains, the dust is blinding and we do not have medicines,” says the 90-year-old, speaking with great difficulty.
In Syria “bombs flew over our heads, destroyed our homes and made our lives hell. That’s why we had to leave — for the sake of the children,” Bardani says, sitting inside a tent and surrounded by some of his 20 grandchildren.
Like Bardani, more than a million Syrians have registered abroad with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
They have fled Syria, a country plagued by deadly violence since March 2011 after a peaceful popular uprising turned into an armed conflict between rebels and forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.
Jordan says the kingdom is sheltering nearly 436,000 Syrian refugees, and that this figure could surge to 700,000 by the end of 2013.
The Zaatari camp, situated in a desert region in the north of the country, is now home to some 120,000 Syrians. It has been a scene of several protests by refugees denouncing living conditions there.
The camp also witnessed two accidents involving fire within two days.
A Syrian refugee was killed in a fire that swept through his tent overnight Saturday at the camp, while two of his children were seriously injured in the blaze.
On Friday, a short circuit in the camp set 35 tents ablaze, although there were no serious injuries.
“Really, it’s as if we are in a large prison we can’t escape from. Nobody but God can truly feel our suffering,” says Bardani’s eldest son, Mohammed, who suffers from a heart ailment and underwent surgery last year.
“My health is very bad and I have no medicines,” says Mohammed, adding that he goes to the camp’s clinic every day to try to arrange transport south to the capital Amman for an operation.
“All the doctors do here is dole out painkillers,” he says.
“When night falls, you can hear the cries of the sick and the children. We want the world to help us — being stuck here in the desert is inhuman.”
Mohammed Ahmed, a blue-eyed 14-year-old, does not go to school like other boys his age.
Instead he works with his father in a tent, a makeshift vegetable shop, on the main street in the Zaatari camp. Mohammed’s mother died in childbirth four months ago, so now he helps his father work to feed his eight children.
“I’m the oldest in the family. We have no money so I work to help my father. Life here is very difficult, and my father has to buy many things for my little brothers,” he says.
Hurriya Said, a 60-year-old widowed mother of five, stands outside her tent and is scathing about conditions in the camp.
“Our situation is catastrophic. There’s no taste to the food, no smell. It comes in rusty cans, and we have no benefits, no clothes.
“I haven’t had a bath for three months. Every night, I scratch my head and cry over my fate.”
But Abu al-Abd, who arrived at Zaatari just a few days ago, still has a positive outlook.
“Life in the camp is better than life in Syria,” says the 45-year-old father of six who lay low for five hours at the border before he could safely cross into Jordan.
“We should all thank God. At least here we’re safe from the bombing, death and destruction.”