In Syrian refugee camp, anger at Obama

McClatchy Foreign StaffSeptember 1, 2013 

— As President Barack Obama’s announcement that he was postponing U.S. missile strikes against the Syrian regime hit the Zaatari refugee camp, so did anger and fear.

“If they’re going to strike, let them strike once and for all and bring the regime down,” grumbled Um Hafiz, who fled with her husband and five children from their village near Syria’s southern city of Daara in January.

Other residents said Sunday that they worried that Obama’s decision to first seek congressional authorization for a U.S. military operation would so embolden Syrian President Bashar Assad that the dictator might even dare to attack Zaatari, a major recruiting ground for rebel fighters located about 5 miles inside Jordan.

“We were happy when we first heard that the U.S. would attack, but then when it was postponed, we were afraid that Bashar would attack the camp,” said Raad Zoubi, 23, who has called the dusty, sun-stricken swath of tents and prefabricated metal huts home for the last year. “People are angry, but when the Americans do attack, we will be happy they do.”

Expectations were running high in Zaatari late last week as the United States signaled that cruise missile strikes were imminent, asserting that it had determined “with high confidence” that the Assad regime was behind an alleged Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack on a rebel-held Damascus suburb that killed at least 1,429 civilians.

Camp residents heard Obama reveal his decision to postpone the operation on live broadcasts of his Rose Garden announcement carried by Arabic-language television channels received over the satellite dishes that sprout like mushrooms atop the dwellings lining Zaatari’s trash-strewn streets.

“Everybody was watching,” recalled Zoubi, 23, a baker from Taybeh, a village outside Daara, where the anti-Assad protests that led to the brutal civil war erupted on March 18, 2011.

Coming from a country that the Assad family has ruled for four decades, it’s doubtful that most of the camp’s more than 120,000 residents understood Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval in the face of opposition by a majority of Americans to U.S. intervention.

Fadil Issa, 35, who has been in Zaatari since leaving his village near Daara eight months ago, said many refugees think Obama called off the U.S. strikes for fear they could have triggered hostilities between the United States and Iran, one of Assad’s main allies.

“People are unhappy by this postponement. They don’t understand why he’s afraid of Iran,” he said.

Even as refugees tried to make sense of Obama’s decision, life continued uninterrupted in Zaatari, including the nightly return to Syria by refugees so tired of the camp’s heat, filth, tedium and crime that they willingly brave the risky border crossing to return to old homes or seek new ones amidst the violence and uncertainty of their war-stricken country.

“What’s the worst that will happen? We would rather die in our homeland,” said Ahmad Mohammad Hussein, 28, an electrician who was arrested by Assad’s security forces during the anti-Assad protests in Daara and spent a year in prison. “We can’t take it here anymore.”

Hussein waited in the sultry late afternoon heat with scores of other men, women and children for the buses that would leave them at unofficial border crossings maintained by the Jordanian military. From there, they were to walk to Syrian territory controlled by rebels of the Free Syrian Army, a loose amalgam of rebel groups.

Seats on the buses are limited and it’s first come, first served. So the crowd charged the vehicles as they pulled up in clouds of choking dust, pushing and shoving through the doors, their meager possessions stuffed in cloth bundles and old suitcases.

Jordanian security forces in three grey armored cars stood by impassively, on guard against serious violence.

The buses were preceded by a truck hauling a trailer with windows cut into its sides and stairs that swung down from the rear. It appeared to be bringing rebel fighters back into Syria as only men and teen-aged boys swarmed into the trailer, some pushing their bags through the windows before clambering through, others crushing their way up the stairs into the rear.

“It’s unbearable to live here,” said Hafez as she watched the scene, several of her daughters clustered by her side. “Even with rocket explosions, it’s better over there. We’re not afraid. Whatever Allah has written for us will happen.”

Email:jlanday@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @JonathanLanday

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