by Kennedy Graham
Friday: I am in the Middle East. There are four of us together as I write – two National MPs, one Labour, one Green. We have been in Israel and Palestine, listening to the entrenched views of each side. Final settlement is a mirage, for as far as the eye can see.
Last night we crossed into Jordan, not without hassle from the Israeli border security. It does not come as a surprise. I once lived in the region and never crossed the border without it. But it is a barometer of the tension level and it was not low on the Richter scale.
Today we are travelling north to the Jordan-Syria border. We pause at Jerash to marvel at Roman amphitheatres under the sun before reaching the border at Ramtha. We meet the Deputy-Governor who explains, accurately, the depth of Jordanian humanitarianism in receiving, not for the first time, refugees from surrounding lands. “They are our cousins”, and it is a literal truth. They will be processed, and if a Jordanian family gives a NZ$8,000 bond they are free to travel throughout Jordan as if they were citizens. This is different from Turkey where they are confined to camps. They are, after all, no cousin of the Turks.
But the experience is taking its toll on a country already under economic strain. The registered arrivals number 13,000. Some informal estimates of the non-registered are ten-fold on that.
Many are injured. There are only six medical beds in the immediate vicinity. The Deputy has worked seven days a week for 16 months and is exhausted. The processing facility is damaged so he steers them into his office for processing.
Some 11,000 (11,148 to be precise) have been adopted by families. They spend a few days in the processing facility; then they are free to go. The remainder go to the ‘refugee camps’. These are essentially building complexes commandeered for the purpose. One is a housing complex. It houses 389 Syrians. One is a sporting complex, with 188 single men. One is a (failed) cyber-city, with 352 Palestinian-Syrians. Last night 193 had crossed over. The Syrian army seeks to prevent them succeeding. Seven had bullet wounds. With one man we shook his arm instead of his hand, which was missing.
We visit the housing complex first. The scene is (in)glorious chaos. Al Jazeera materialises and is turned away, being outnumbered by the district police on hand. We meet a reticent Jordanian gentleman. His name is Nidal Al-Bashabsa. He has covenanted his land and buildings for this purpose. Thanks to you, Sir, may Peace be unto you.
We are surrounded by hundreds of beautiful clamouring children. They laugh and jostle, oblivious to the agonising drama playing out around them, excited by the presence of strange white adults. Whoever we are, whatever we’re doing they know not. Nor do they care; it is fun enough to compete for the camera lens.
I speak (through interpreter) to one man. He came across the border last night. He had come from an outer suburb of Damascus. They had set his house on fire and shot at him. He had reached the border and waited for the dark. The Syrian army had fired on him from a few hundred metres, but once across no-man’s land the Jordanian army is there to help.
We visit the men’s camp at the sporting complex. It is overflowing so some sleep outside.
They lounge in the heat with the innocent menace of panthers ready to prowl – fit young men unable to live like fit young men, caged in open air, testosterone on the rise. We enter the building and descend into the basement. There are hundreds more and the room is electric with drama. They surround us and chant – “Allah, make the leaders of the world help us in our plight”. We appear as avenging angels but in fact are mortally constrained in our ability to help. We gingerly make our way back up the stairs.
We proceed to the Palestinian camp. The conditions there are the worst. Almost 400 are crammed into a concrete building, family-by-family, five to a room. This modest edifice had previously been decertified as unfit for habitation. Cooking conditions are squalid, not to put too fine a point on it, and the toilets are adjacent. The emotional tension is high. The difference is that, as Palestinians, they are not free to go. They have no rights any more, anywhere. The mothers are beside themselves for their children. They demand a solution from us. We nod reassuringly, and move on.
The numbers are not huge, but the situation is dire. And it would be a lot worse if the receiving country were not Jordan with its humble compassion and practical common sense – a legacy of the late King Hussein bin Talal bin Abdullah. But it may in fact well get worse. The Deputy Governor may be exhausted but it is not exhaustion that is keeping him awake at night. It is the prospect of the fighting in Syria extending south to Darrar, one of the centres of resistance but which has been spared to date. If fighting reaches Darrar, things will explode across the border in Ramtha. For Darrar is maybe 5 kilometres away. We are standing a kilometre and a half from the border.
Amidst the colour and emotion and the tension, the vivid moment for me was in the first housing complex. There we met and interviewed a man who spoke English well enough to converse with directly. His wife – tiny, transparently veiled, beautiful and in grief – stood beside him. So did their five kids. They had just arrived from Homs. It had taken 7 days to travel the 380 km., much of it by foot. Her mother had been killed by a tank – flattened, if we understood the gesture. They too had been shot at crossing the border. But here they were.
I do not know his name. But we are close friends. And there will forever be some corner of a foreign field, way down in the South Pacific, that is forever Syria. For I have his shoes and he has mine.