Middle East

Refugees in Jordan dismayed at prospect of Assad reelection

Syrian refugee girls sing patriotic songs during an event marking the third anniversary of the Syrian conflict, at Zaatari refugee camp, near the Syrian border, in Mafraq, Jordan, Thursday, March 13, 2014. (AP Photo/Mohammad Hannon)

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan: Syrian refugees in a sprawling desert camp in Jordan fear that President Bashar Assad’s likely reelection this year will leave their dream of a return home as distant as ever.

As Syria’s war entered its fourth year this weekend, many of the some 100,000 refugees in Zaatari camp see no end in sight to their misery.

“After killing tens of thousands of his own people and forcing millions more to flee their homes, the idea of Assad’s reelection is insane,” Abu Mohammad, 54, said.

“I’m not sure when I will return. The entire world has let us down,” said Abu Mohammad, who fled Deraa in southern Syria last year.

The embattled Assad has not announced his candidacy for a presidential vote to be held by July, but is widely expected to seek and win another seven-year term.

“His reelection would be like a bomb exploding in everyone’s face. It doesn’t make sense,” Abu Mohammad said, seated outside his caravan, drinking herbal tea and smoking cigarettes with friends.

The refugees complain about the dust and electricity shortages at Zaatari, where the temperature in the summer reaches around 40 degrees Celsius and plunges below freezing in the winter.

Last year, the worst winter storm in a decade turned Zaatari into a muddy swamp, blowing away at least 500 tents. The government has since replaced most of the tents with caravans.

The Syrian opposition has repeatedly insisted that Assad must step down under any settlement, especially in two rounds of failed peace talks earlier this year.

But for the refugees in the densely populated, 7-square-kilometer camp in northern Jordan near the border with Syria, the U.N.-brokered peace negotiations have made no difference.

“The regime and the opposition are both untrustworthy. The talks are absurd and will not lead to anything,” said Abu Mohammad.

Other refugees agreed.

“The negotiations are nonsense. I do not hold out hope of returning any time soon,” said Alaa Ghuthani, 38, a former shop owner.

The brutal war in Syria between the regime and its foes shows no sign of abating and has killed at least 140,000 people since it erupted in mid-March 2011.

Some 2.5 million Syrians have fled abroad, and another 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Jordan is home to over 500,000 refugees.

“If Assad does not step down, it will be a catastrophe. There will be no peace and we will not have any hope of going home,” said Umm Mohammad, who fled with her 11 children more than a year ago.

“Negotiating with Assad is a waste of time. His regime respects nothing and nobody,” Umm Mohammad added as she walked near her tent, wearing a long black dress and a dark red headscarf.

An Oxfam survey found last week that more than 65 percent of 1,015 refugees questioned in three regions of Jordan fear they will never be able to go home.

While the overwhelming majority of refugees want to return, only one-third said they could clearly see themselves going home, according to Oxfam.

Most could not say when.

“What is happening to us is heartbreaking, and Assad is becoming stronger every day. ... Is anybody left in Syria to vote for him?” sighed Aisha, 55.

“Assad will not give up and step down,” said Abu Raafat, a former restaurant owner wearing a red-and-white kaffiyeh and heavy coat.

“I do not see any hope now. It looks like our crisis is going to take a long time. God help us.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 17, 2014, on page 8.




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