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Alex Rowell

Zaatari’s mukhabarrat wars

In Jordan’s largest Syrian refugee camp, Assad agents settle scores with FSA opponents

Refugees protesting outside the UN Population Fund office in Zaatari camp, May 5, 2013 (NOW/Alex Rowell)
Refugees protesting outside the UN Population Fund office in Zaatari camp, May 5, 2013 (NOW/Alex Rowell)
Refugees protesting outside the UN Population Fund office in Zaatari camp, May 5, 2013 (NOW/Alex Rowell)
A refugee climbs the window of the UN Population Fund office, before shouting at NOW to stop taking photos (NOW/Alex Rowell)
Graffiti in the camp of the “Free Syria” flag with text reading, “Syria, don’t worry, we’re returning” (NOW/Alex Rowell)
A shop in the camp’s main street flies the “Free Syria” flag (NOW/Alex Rowell)
Refugees walk up and down the camp’s main shopping strip (NOW/Alex Rowell)

This article is the first in a two-part series based on NOW’s visit to Jordan’s Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees on Sunday, May 5, 2013.

 

ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan – When the refugees climbed on top of the portable cabin office of the Jordan Health Aid Society and began stamping their feet, the frail walls shaking with each loud bang, the aid workers cooped inside did little but grin in sheepish embarrassment. “Everything’s fine,” one said to NOW with apparent confidence. “It’s always like this.”

 

Outside, however, the refugees themselves were decidedly less placid, drenched with sweat from the punishing heat and shouting incoherently at the window of the neighboring office, that of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). “You’re a journalist? Take photos!” shouted one at NOW. Moments later, a man clinging onto the metal bars of the window saw NOW and yelled, “No photos, no photos!” Hands then pulled NOW back to the fringes of the hundred-strong-crowd, which continued to swarm the cabin for over two hours.

 

The riot was but one of the increasing number now taking place in the Syrian refugee camp every week, fuelled by the combination of chronic underfunding and ballooning overpopulation (built for 60,000 inhabitants, Zaatari now houses over 160,000, with hundreds of new arrivals every night). While Sunday’s demonstration was essentially peaceful, some in the past have turned violent – on April 19, ten Jordanian policemen were reportedly injured in clashes with 100 refugees, eight of whom were arrested and charged with “unlawful assembly.” Leaked video footage appears to show Jordanian security forces attacking refugee homes with projectiles and batons.

 

Pretexts for such demonstrations vary by the day, from the perceived underperformance of aid organizations to sheer street gossip – one in February, for example, was sparked by rumors of Jordanian police sexually harassing refugee women.

 

“It can be about anything,” said an aid worker who requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the topic. “I could point to a random person in the street and shout, ‘Shabbih [Syrian regime agent]!’ and it could cause a riot.” For some, it seems, the protests are just something to do; a bit of excitement in an otherwise hard daily grind.

 

Yet refugees also told NOW of another source of the unrest – the infiltration of Syrian regime mukhabarrat [secret police], sent into the camp to keep tabs on Free Syrian Army (FSA) opponents, disrupt Jordanian efforts to maintain security, and foment disorder in general.

 

“The mukhabarrat have bases here in the camp,” said Ahmad, a refugee from Daraa in his mid-twenties. “Mostly they just collect information, but sometimes they attack people. There was an FSA general living in the camp, for example, who they assassinated.” They are also believed to have started some, though not all, of the tent fires that have claimed a handful of lives.

 

Not that refugees’ woes end there. “We actually have three kinds of mukhabarrat here,” said Ahmad. “There is the regime one, which we call shabbiha; there is the Jordanian one; and now we even have an FSA one too. We definitely didn’t need that,” he laughs bitterly.

 

Camp residents are visibly and apparently uniformly anti-regime – the “Free Syria” flag flies on every street, covers the walls of shops and is spray-painted on blank surfaces. Yet Ahmad told NOW the behavior of some “FSA mukhabarrat” has bred resentment.

 

“We are all with the revolution. But some [of the FSA] are stealing from other refugees, and turning corrupt. It’s as if they forgot about the revolution and are just interested in themselves. They became like the regime,” he told NOW.

 

Facilitating these practices is an improvised system of government within the camp that sees each street controlled by an unofficial leader, or za’eem. According to the aid worker quoted earlier, these leaders are notoriously corrupt – charging commission from residents of ‘their’ street who find employment, and buying influence with confiscated aid vouchers. Perhaps inevitably, there is a degree of overlap between these leaders and the competing mukhabarrat outfits.

 

Nor is the Jordanian gendarmerie particularly popular, as stories abound of its heavy-handed rule. “The other day, they accused a boy of stealing a caravan, and they beat him up,” said Ahmad. “Imagine – one boy stealing an entire caravan! Where would he hide it? Would he put it in his pocket?”

 

At the police station near the camp’s main entrance, the gendarmerie loiter by a couple of APCs, carrying meter-long batons. Though they were friendly with most refugees walking past, NOW witnessed one being manhandled into an office, the gendarme swearing at him and telling him to “shut up” when he spoke. He had been accused, NOW learned, of assaulting a Jordanian national.

 

In spite of these frictions, Ahmad said there was a degree of cooperation between the gendarmerie and the FSA. For example, when the FSA general was assassinated by the regime mukhabarrat, he says, the Jordanians caught the perpetrators and handed them over to the FSA. What, NOW asked, did the FSA do with them?

 

“Oh, they killed them.”

 

Interviewees’ names have been changed at their request, in the interests of their safety.

 

Read this article in Arabic

Refugees protesting outside the UN Population Fund office in Zaatari camp, May 5, 2013 (NOW/Alex Rowell)

“The mukhabarrat have bases here in the camp,” said Ahmad, a refugee from Daraa in his mid-twenties. “Mostly they just collect information, but sometimes they attack people. There was an FSA general living in the camp, for example, who they assassinated.”