Touring Refugee Camp, Kerry Sees Mounting Syrian Suffering

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ZAATARI, Jordan -- Secretary of State John Kerry helicoptered to the crowded refugee camp here on Thursday to take stock of the humanitarian crisis caused by the bitter fighting in neighboring Syria and highlight the American efforts to provide aid.

But as frustrated Syrian refugees appealed for Western military intervention to halt the attacks by the Syrian government's forces, Mr. Kerry's visit soon became a graphic illustration of the limits of the Obama administration's policy.

"We are not satisfied with the American answers," said Jamalat Abdulraouf al-Hariri, 43, after her meeting with Mr. Kerry.

"We just need an action," she added, noting that the refugees wanted the United States to establish a no-fly zone or a protected area for civilians inside Syria. "We always hear words."

The Zaatari camp, so close to the border that refugees can hear artillery fire at night, sprouted up as a temporary refuge.

But some 115,000 people currently live here. And now that the forces of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad -- with the help of Hezbollah fighters and Iranian paramilitary Quds force operatives -- have captured the strategic western town of Qusayr, the Zaatari camp has begun to take on a more permanent appearance.

Prefabricated houses, some of which feature satellite dishes, are taking the places of tents. Refugees stand on the rooftops at night to phone relatives left behind. Some 3,000 shops have been established, many of which line a street that camp officials with some irony have dubbed the Champs-Elysees. Camp occupants run taxi services, and as many as 15 babies are born each day in a hospital run by the French. The camp costs $1 million a day to operate.

"After Qusayr, everybody is beginning to understand that they are going to stay for a while," said Kilian Kleinschmidt, the German camp manager who works for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Troubled by a range of problems, the camp is just a small piece of a the widening humanitarian crisis. According to a senior State Department official, about 2.5 million Syrians are "internally displaced," an increase of one million since the beginning of the year.

An additional 1.7 million Syrians have left the country, according to tabulations by the United Nations refugee agency, though the State Department official noted that the actual number could be higher.

The United Nations has estimated that there could be as many as three million refugees by the end of the year. That would mean that more than five million of Syria's 23 million citizens would have been forced from their homes.

António Guterres, the head of the United Nations refugee agency, has expressed growing alarm about the scope and severity of the crisis. On Tuesday, he told the Security Council that the pace of Syrians' fleeing the country was the worst since the Rwandan genocide in 1994. On Thursday, he criticized the European Union for not doing enough to assist Syrians who have sought shelter and asylum in Europe, suggesting a more generous outreach could help ease the refugee burdens imposed on Syria's neighbors. "A positive example from Europe is now crucial," Mr. Guterres told a meeting of the European Union's Justice and Home Affairs Council in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Mr. Kleinschmidt said security at the Zaatari camp had improved from the days when United Nations workers had to wear hard hats to protect against rocks thrown by disgruntled refugees.

But there are still enormous difficulties. Some 60 percent of the camp's population is under 17, and only 5,000 of the 30,000 children who should be attending school do. Gangs remains a concern. A prefabricated structure that was intended to serve as police station was looted and carted away before it could be occupied, United Nations workers said.

Fleeing from the brutality in Syria, many of the refugees, Mr. Kleinschmidt said, "have a disturbed relationship with authority" and distrust people in uniform.

The population of the camp has fluctuated over time: it has actually gone down in recent months as some camp inhabitants have tried to find accommodations with friends or relatives in Jordan -- sometimes only to return. The total number of refugees in Jordan is estimated at 550,000.

After flying here with Nasser Judeh, Jordan's foreign minister, Mr. Kerry was escorted to a headquarters area that was fenced off from the refugees' living area for meetings with Mr. Kleinschmidt, the camp's manager, along with a half dozen of the refugees.

Before the Syrians joined them, Mr. Kleinschmidt told Mr. Kerry that many refugees believed the West was guilty of "nonaction."

"What do they mean by nonaction?" Mr. Kerry asked.

"Military action," Mr. Kleinschmidt explained.

Many of the refugees arrived with terrible stories of killing, rape and suffering that evoked the Rwanda genocide, said Mr. Kleinschmidt, who has served in Somalia, the Congo, Sri Lanka and Balkans.

Once the Syrians -- four women and two men -- were ushered in, Mr. Kerry listened gravely as they pleaded for a no-fly zone and a protected buffer area to which refugees could return. The refugees also asked that the United States take military action to stop shipments of weapons from Iran and the influx of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon.

"Where is the international community?" said one of the women, who did not provide her name. "What are you waiting for? We hope that you will not go aback to the States before you find a solution to the crisis."

Mr. Kerry responded, "As you know, we've been fighting two wars for 12 years," implicitly acknowledging that the Obama administration's response to the Syrian crisis had been influenced by its weariness with its own miltary operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We are trying to help in various ways, including helping Syrian opposition fighters have weapons," Mr. Kerry added. "We are doing new things. There is consideration of buffer zones and other things, but it is not as simple as it sounds."

Mr. Kerry acknowledged that he was "very concerned about Hezbollah and Iran."

As he prepared to leave the camp, Mr. Kerry told reporters that his visit had highlighted the need to respond to the worsening situation in Syria. Having provided $815 million in humanitarian assistance, the United States is the largest financial aid donor in the conflict. But Mr. Kerry provided no hint that the refugees' appeal for military intervention would ever be answered.

"I think they are frustrated and angry at the world for not stepping up," he said. "If I was in their shoes, I would be looking for help wherever I could find it. I share their passion and frustration for the plight that they face on a day-to-day basis."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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