At just after noon on a Friday, the imam steps outside his tent and sings, “God is great!” at the top of his lungs to start the traditional Muslim call to prayer.
Men and boys quickly fill the makeshift mosque. Today’s guest preacher is Jad al-Karim, a fiery 38-year-old Jordanian known as Sheikh Jad. He says he has come to convince the refugees – who grew up in an officially secular state – their plight is a test from God. Then he shouts: “God help the mujahedeen (holy warriors) fighting in Syria! God help remove Bashar!”
Many in Zaatari are torn over whether to return to Syria, where the battle to overthrow Mr. Assad, once led by predominantly secular defectors from his own army, has taken on an increasingly sectarian nature.
Sunni Muslim extremists (such as the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front) now make up a large part of the rebel movement. They see the fight against Mr. Assad – a member of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, and backed by Shia allies from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia – as a holy war, or jihad.
Every week, about 100 people leave the safety of Jordan and return to the maelstrom across the border. Some are looking for missing family members. Others go back to fight.
Mohammed al-Baradani is the Free Syrian Army’s liaison in northern Jordan. Better known as Abu Kheir, he operates from a cigarette shop in Ramtha, a city just south of the border.
Jordanian security helps him deliver fighters safely back to Syria, and allows the wounded to receive medical treatment. But Abu Kheir says the FSA (still formally secular, although YouTube videos suggest its fighters are as capable of cruelty as the Assad regime or extremists) is not allowed to train new recruits or conduct operations from Jordan. Officially, at least, the Hashemite Kingdom is sitting this fight out.
He denies there is enlistment of refugees, but a recent UN report says that, not only is the practice increasing, many of the recruits are under-age. Videos shot in Syria show preteens learning to fire assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.
FSA flags fly over much of Zaatari, and Abu Kheir, who at 52 has had one of his three sons killed and another injured, admits many new fighters come from the camp – as volunteers. “They want to go back.”
A boy who lost his father dreams of revenge
Mahmoud was 12 when his father, standing right beside him, was shot by Syrian troops in Deraa last fall, and was with him when he died in hospital.
By his own admission, the boy was “aggressive” when he arrived in Zaatari days later to live in a caravan with his mother, suffering from gum cancer, and seven siblings. Feeling pressure to be the man of the house, he found a job on Champs-Élysées, paid 75 cents a day to ask families if they’d sell their rations to a black marketeer.
One day he wandered into a safe area run by IMC. Quickly identified as an “urgent” case, he received one-on-one counselling he says has helped him control his anger.
Mahmoud has quit hustling, but at 13 still harbours a deep sense of injury – and injustice.
“You can’t feel it because you’re just here to visit …,” he tells me. “We’re so bored. It’s like a prison. Just for a change, I want to go outside for one hour, for one minute.”
But the Jordanian police allow no one to leave without a permit. And so Mahmoud, who doesn’t go to school (they’re too violent, he says), sits and stews, watching the bad news from Syria on television. Despite the counselling, rage clearly boils just below the surface.
“I think we will not get freedom, Bashar will win,” he says when asked how he thinks the war is going. “My dream is we will win. But my second dream is … when I turn 16 or 18, I will go to Syria and join the jihad.”