Camp Shangri-La

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

The Syrian Civil War is now more than three years old, the death toll by now is surely over 150,000, while estimates of those who have fled the country run from two to four million out of a pre-war population of around 22 million. Worst of all, there is no end to the carnage (including most recently chlorine gas used in the barrel-bombs dropped by regime helicopters on defenseless cities) in sight.

How strange, then, to come across a Syria-related news article that is actually upbeat! This was in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen yesterday, and you can get some idea of its strangeness from the headline, Wifi and pita bars: In the largest refugee camp in the Middle East.

ZaatariThe Palestinians can surely claim seniority when it comes to such tent cities, but the dire current situation in their home country means Syrians win on volume: that largest refugee camp is at Al-Za’atari, in the Jordanian desert just 12km from the Syrian border – in fact from the border to the Deraa region which, like Leipzig in the old East Germany, like Gdańsk in Poland, and indeed like Boston in the United States, will be able to claim pride of place as the cradle of that country’s revolution, if that revolution ever succeeds.

This piece by Gidi Heesakkers* cites the Jordanian proverb that “only the devil lives in Za’atari,” only promptly to controvert that assertion as she writes about the two-day visit a certain Dutch photographer recently paid to that teeming encampment.

Refugee camps, those mean long lines, rice and tears? Seems not. In the largest refugee camp of the Middle East you can find a great pita bar. Photographer Henk Wildschut enjoyed a tasty sandwich there, in a shopping-street smelling of waterpipes, where shoes, festive dresses, lipstick and TVs were also for sale. The camp has Wifi and two supermarkets, with special sales, competitions and shelves full of cola.

Wild, eh? And you may well want to click through and take a look at the photos there (not all by Wildschut): the children look healthy, well-clothed, and reasonably cheerful; and the supermarket aisles look orderly and well-stocked indeed. Credit-card payment is even planned to be made possible – for those carrying them – in about a month. (more…)

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