Chaos and Crime: The Trials of Running a Syrian Refugee Camp


Another says: "They told my husband to go to the police station and bring along sweets. He never returned."

Kleinschmidt says: "Our weakness is that we see the individual trees and not the forest." He doesn't stop to listen to the many stories.

There are probably 116,000 explanations for the rage of the 116,000 refugees in Zaatari, but Kleinschmidt believes he has been able to isolate three important explanations.

First: These people come from a country where the elite are their enemies. Now they have fought for their freedom and don't want the next set of elites to tell them how many lentils they are allowed to eat. Second: Many refugees believe that the international community owes them something, because it isn't stopping the killing in Syria. Third: The mafia.

Kleinschmidt is only gradually able to identify the criminals that are working against him on the other side of the barbed wire, but he thinks he knows what they want. They want to keep the camp in an unstable state, and for free trade to remain forbidden so that smuggling continues to be worthwhile. They also want to prevent the aid organizations from installing a power grid, so that they can continue to sell illegally tapped electricity. And they want police to fear entering the camp, so that the mafia can go about its business without interruption.

There are men in Zaatari who take advantage of chaos to acquire power -- some of them mean well and some are evil. One of them, perhaps the most powerful, is called Abu Hussein.

Competing Leaders

He is sitting in a trailer on a sofa with a floral pattern, serving strong Turkish coffee. His wife places nine ashtrays on the table. There are two Nokia mobile phones on the carpet, one red and one pink. Hussein's children are sitting in an adjacent trailer, where an air-conditioner keeps the temperature at around 18 degrees Celsius (64 degrees Fahrenheit), watching "Hero Turtles" on TV. "If I wanted to, I could have the entire camp burning in five minutes," says Hussein.

The 48-year-old keeps his beard neatly trimmed, and his hair is either blow-dried into shape or possesses some sort of natural tension that keeps it elevated from his head. He says that before becoming the most powerful man in Zaatari, he lived in the Syrian city of Daraa, where he worked in a school, teaching a subject called "Air-Conditioning and Heating." When the people revolted against Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hussein joined the rebel fighters and became commander of a special unit of the Free Syrian Army, the "Falcons of the Tribe of the Prophet Mohammed." The Falcons specialized in mines, says Hussein. "I killed people."

Then he got scared and fled. When he reached Zaatari on Aug. 5 of last year, he was the 60th refugee to arrive at the camp, when a cold desert wind was blowing, he says. Hussein asked the aid workers for blankets for the women and children. When one of them refused, Hussein said that he had killed 73 people and that number would reach 74 if the worker didn't comply with his request. The aid worker gave him the blankets. From then on, he says, he was "the Akeed," or ruler.

As ruler, Hussein is accustomed to controlling the conversation. It's difficult to ask him a question and get a straightforward answer. Or perhaps he is too clever to respond directly to the questions.

What do people give him for being the boss?

"The only ruler is Allah."

But doesn't he, Abu Hussein, have a say here?

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