The cruel, pointless torture of young Halim Mahameed went on for two days.“The security forces took me and beat me. … They tied my whole body up and they whipped me with electric cables,” the diminutive young Syrian says matter-of-factly.
“Why?” is the only response I can muster in the silence that follows. The 14-year-old smiles sadly before continuing.
“I had gone to some demonstrations and, when people were killed and injured, I helped with the ambulances. Someone from the security forces saw me and put me on a list.”
Then it’s time to stop talking. He has an exam to write.
Halim is at school in Zaatari, a sprawling refugee settlement in the Jordanian desert 15 kilometres from Syria. It opened just over a year ago and is now home to a staggering 130,000 people, a small fraction of the two million who have fled Syria, but enough to make it Jordan’s fourth-largest “city” and the world’s second-largest refugee camp. He should realize he is safe now, but it is clear that the children of Zaatari – and those under 18 make up more than half of the population – feel anything but secure.
Physical threats may be largely behind them, but deep psychological scars remain. Teachers who ask them to draw pictures of their old homes are handed back scenes of tanks and airplanes bombing villages filled with dead bodies, or sometimes just pages covered in furious black scribbles. The spaces between the tents and mobile homes known here as caravans are vast imaginary battlefields, places where kids play “Regime against Rebels,” hurling rocks and carrying out mock torture and executions.
Even when not playing, “the behaviour of the students is very aggressive,” says Salem Elayyan, principal of Halim’s school, one of three that are run by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef). “They hit each other for no reason. They destroy their school materials.” His classrooms are so ruled by violence and intimidation that many families prefer to keep their kids at home.
Child-protection workers – including veterans of other war zones – say they’ve never before seen children like this.
Some fear that Halim and the kids of Zaatari are a tormented and angry “lost generation” that will haunt the Middle East and the world for decades to come.
Even if the war ended tomorrow and they could all go home – increasingly unlikely as prospects of international intervention fade – it’s hard to imagine these predominantly Sunni Muslim kids living in peace beside those who fought for the regime, and the Shiites and Christians who broadly supported President Bashar al-Assad. A long cycle of rage and revenge may be inevitable.
“This Zaatari generation is going to be living outside Syria, with all their memories, disenchanted with their situation. This is going to be an alienated group of people with no focus and no objective,” warns a Jordanian government official, speaking on condition he not be identified.
He recalls the displacement and anger among those driven from their homes by the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. And that was a war fought without public beheadings and sarin gas attacks.
“In the 1960s and 70s, you had children growing up in the Palestinian refugee camps. They became groups like Black September. The camps were the breeding grounds for all these groups, Abu Nadal and others,” he says.
“These Syrian youths in the camps have nothing to lose, and that’s very dangerous.”
The ‘mayor’ of Zaatari was narrowly missed by a rock
Zaatari’s desert location is so inhospitable that aid workers were in disbelief when it was initially offered to them. The sun is relentless, and there’s no natural shade, forcing refugees to stay indoors as much as possible. Water was already scarce in Jordan before 130,000 more people moved into the most arid region of the country.
Parts of Zaatari hum with commerce, and children at play, but much of the camp, which is surrounded by a sand berm and armoured personnel carriers to keep people from going in or out, sits in a sweltering silence broken only by the call to prayer sung five times a day from 60-plus makeshift mosques.
Kilian Kleinschmidt calls himself Zaatari’s “mayor.” As local head of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), which has overall responsibility for the camp, he is the closest thing it has to an authority figure. The gruff German controls the distribution of everything from food rations to the prized caravans he hopes all residents will move into eventually. Half the population still lives under canvas, which offers little protection against the coming winter.