Syrian refugee wave strains Jordan's dusty desert camp

ZAATARI, Jordan Thu Aug 30, 2012 11:55am EDT

ZAATARI, Jordan (Reuters) - At a dust-blown refugee camp in the Jordanian desert, Ayham Qaddah hugs the only member of his immediate family to survive the rocket which struck his home in Syria's southern province of Deraa, killing his wife and three sons.

The young father, caring for his bandaged six-year-old daughter, is one of nearly 2,000 refugees who have crossed daily into northern Jordan, overwhelming the efforts of a country with few natural resources to accommodate them.

Escaping what they say is a brutal and escalating military campaign by President Bashar al-Assad's forces, the refugees are hosted in an unfinished camp where aid agencies and authorities are struggling to provide the most basic shelter and facilities.

Jordan has already declared the influx, which the U.N. refugee agency says has doubled in the last week, is beyond what it can deal with and appealed for international help.

The United Nations has registered more than 214,000 Syrian refugees in four neighboring countries, with more than 70,000 of those in Jordan, a country of 6.5 million.

At Zaatari, the sweltering summer heat, limited facilities and choking, dust-filled winds have prompted complaints which frequently erupt into protests.

"Look. You cannot tell human beings from the dust," said Salem al-Awad from the Syrian town of Dael, most of whose several thousand inhabitants have fled to Jordan. "If there were decent living conditions we would not complain."

"We chanted that death is preferable to humiliation," he added, referring to a popular slogan used in anti-Assad protests in Syria. "We are not coming here to be humiliated. No way."

He was sitting in one of the thousands of small tents in Zaatari with his wife and five children.

Jordanian officials said hundreds of youths were sent back across the border on Thursday after riots broke out against security forces at the camp. Syrians who are deported are taken back to where they crossed - areas usually controlled by the rebels rather than Assad's forces.

AGENCIES OVERWHELMED

Saba Mobaslat, program director at Save the Children, acknowledged that the aid agencies have been overwhelmed by refugee numbers.

"Refugees came to a camp that lacks the basics and whose construction is still being completed and this is a real concern... We have to question what is leading to almost daily protests over conditions," she said.

Many people at the camp carry surgical masks to deal with the dust storms whipped up by a wind so fierce that five tents were blown away on Thursday, according to refugees.

Water tankers and trucks cram the makeshift entrance to the camp, some carrying gravel which officials hope can be spread across the ground to keep the dust at bay.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative Andrew Harper said the agency was stepping up services and support, but acknowledged the scale of the task.

"It's a challenge just to try to keep on top of things and the environment of Zaatari is not necessarily helping. It's an atrocious location but it's the only location we've got," Harper said.

The camp was opened last month before the latest wave of Syrians fled Deraa, where the uprising against Assad erupted in March last year. In the last week its numbers have doubled to 24,000 as refugees were driven out by fierce bombardment of towns in the rebellious agricultural province.

Qaddah, who escaped the rocket attack with his young daughter, is from the town of Herak, whose residents took up arms against Assad after months of pro-democracy demonstrations, inspired by uprisings in other Arab countries.

LAYING SIEGE

Assad's forces entered Herak 10 days ago after laying siege for weeks and bombarding it with air strikes and artillery, according to residents who had fled the devastated town.

They said at least 200 people were killed in shelling and the assault on the town, where bloodied bodies summarily executed by troops lay strewn in the streets and basements.

Qaddah said "God was merciful" towards his two daughters Soujoud, 13, Malak 10 and his younger nine-year-old son Abdullah because they were buried in a marked grave rather than thrown in mass burial pits he helped dig for unidentified corpses.

Similar exoduses had emptied the nearby agricultural towns of Tayba, Saida, Dael and Khirbet Ghazala, where poverty and discontent with Assad's minority Alawite rule erupted into mass protests by mainly Sunni Muslim residents.

Nineteen-year-old Taghreed Hariri said her family packed up and left at dawn under the protection of the rebels after a rocket dug a huge crater in their neighbor's home in Mahaja, killing an elderly woman and two children.

As officials and aid agencies scramble to absorb new arrivals, the United Arab Emirates has sent hundreds of prefabricated buildings and thousands of tents. UAE authorities have also promised to cover the costs of a new camp to shelter up to 20,000 people.

"We know that there are thousands more who wish to come across in the coming days and so we are desperately racing to try and put the necessary infrastructure," Harper said.

"We have to start planning... When you have 2,000 come across a day, even this location will be filled in two months at this current rate. So we have got to start looking at bigger and bigger camps in other locations," he said.

(Editing by Dominic Evans and Giles Elgood)

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