AL-QAIM, Iraq: At this border camp for displaced Syrians, 3-by-2 meter white plastic dome tents line row by row across a dusty, barren moonscape, enclosed by a barbed wire fence.
Inside, hundreds of grubby-faced children wander around aimlessly, kicking up dirt as they play with a few plastic balls. A heavily pregnant woman crouches, washing a small collection of tin plates. Another woman kneels, scrubbing clothes with soap and water in tin tubs. Laundry curtains along lines suspended across the tent peaks.
The chores of daily survival are about the only things to offset a sense of omnipresent boredom and hopelessness here in Camp 2, home to 4,000 Syrian refugees, most of them from the Syrian border town of Albu-Kamal, some 20 kilometers away.
It is one of two camps in the area, built to accommodate some 5,000 refugees but currently housing some 8,000, according to Hasanain al-Qotbi, the media spokesman for the Anbar province’s immigration and displaced emergency unit.
Just a kilometer away, within sight of the heavily fortified Iraqi customs house, the green, black and white Free Syrian Army rebel flag, painted on the back wall of the now derelict Albu-Kamal customs house on the Syrian side, stares down defiantly. The post was overrun by Syrian rebels in July.
Now, abandoned by the Syrian border guards and gutted by rebels, hundreds of mostly young men and families are massed around the area, waiting their turn to enter Iraq.
With the camps in Al-Qaim stretched beyond capacity, the Iraqi authorities have temporarily closed passage to those waiting to flee aerial and tank bombardment of Albu-Kamal and the surrounding desert villages.
They will just have to wait. Qotbi says until a third camp is completed – he hopes by the end of next week – there is simply nowhere for them to go.
“We are not receiving any refugees at the moment except for injured people or special cases. People are banked up on the border waiting to come in. They are mainly young men,” the spokesman explained.
His comments came as the U.N. warned Friday of an escalating humanitarian crisis in Syria and the International Committee for the Red Cross said it was struggling to cope with the scale of the exodus after 11,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries in one day.
As The Daily Star waited for entrance to the refugee camp, a Red Crescent vehicle sped from the direction of the border.
“Most of the injured are from shelling. We take them directly to the local hospitals, but they themselves are overwhelmed,” Qotbi said. He added that he himself had driven about 100 injured Syrians to hospitals in his own vehicle.
With the wait now stretching into weeks, those waiting to enter have set up a makeshift village around the border area.
Stalls for food and household supplies have emerged and, with familial and tribal bonds spanning this remote part of the area known as the Jazira, or desert steppe region, donations of food, clothing and medicine are passed across the fence on daily basis.
In her new home at Camp 2, Umm Samah complains that she is not allowed out of the camp to visit her cousins with Iraqi citizenship and says she has been unable to see a doctor for ongoing hypertension.
At present, one doctor is catering to the entire camp, although officials said that specialist doctors, including a gynecologist and dentist, would be visiting “soon.”
Umm Samah said she had arrived here with her 10 children and 15 grandchildren, along with neighbors and friends, on Sept. 24, after their homes were demolished in an aerial bombardment by the Syrian Army.
Her son, 17-year-old Nafez, had been injured in the shoulder by shrapnel, caught in the crossfire as he tried to flee his mobile phone shop when the area came under tank fire. He survived, but many of the families here have lost relatives and friends.
As most Albu-Kamal families here will testify, peaceful protests began early on in Syria’s uprising, but since the army opened fire, killing unarmed protesters, the town has come under near constant attack from tanks, helicopters and MiG aircraft.
“The airstrikes have been going for the last three months and when we lost our houses, we had to come here,” Umm Samah explained.
The difficulties of life here are something she is willing to endure, she says, for a better life after Assad, who camp residents here say neglected the far eastern provinces for decades.
“We lived very poor lives under Assad and his father. I don’t care what happens, he has to go because it will have to be better for us.”
Al-Qaim is a desolate place, lying some 90 kilometers west of the town of Rawa across the vast and lawless Anbar desert.
A historic smuggling route for weapons and militants into Iraq during the American invasion, transit has now been reversed.
Iraq’s own newly formed and fragile sectarian unity government is struggling to straddle the competing interests of its neighbors on the Syria crisis.
Wary that the cross-border support for the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad could spike a Sunni uprising of its own in the former Al-Qaeda stronghold, it is struggling to manage the long porous border.
The government announced it would reopen the border to refugees in September, but is carefully vetting men over the age of 16 to keep the town from becoming a hub for militant activity.
Iraqi Army units have been deployed in greater numbers, but, as the Mayor of Al-Qaim Farhan Ftaikhan admits, it is nearly impossible to secure the length of the 220-kilometer border.
Regular cross-border violations by the Syrian Army have brought the conflict to Al-Qaim’s doorstep. At least three Katyusha rockets have landed here, destroying houses, and in one case killing a 5-year-old girl. In the latest incident on Oct. 21, he said a woman had been injured and her house damaged.
“It has stopped for the last week, but before that it was almost daily,” he added, referring to air violations.
“There are no border guards on the Syrian side – it’s total chaos.”
“There is a lot of sympathy here for the Syrian people, through intermarriages and relations. We opened the border out of our humanitarian duty.”