IN ORDER to find salvation, Hamid and his family first had to travel through hell. Under the cover of night, the darkness punctuated by the flash of explosions and gunfire, he and his three children knelt down in the back of a dump truck as it made its way south through villages where the Syrian conflict raged.
“Once we crossed those areas where there was fighting, we felt like we were reborn,” he recalled.
The patriarch of a herder family which had worked the same scrub of land for generations, Hamid knew the passage could cost them their lives. The alternative, however, would be almost certain death. For months, they had flitted from village to village around Homs in the hope the bloodshed would end. Instead, the bombardments intensified, often giving the family no choice but to take shelter in holes they hurriedly dug.
When they returned to their home village, they found their house the only building still standing. What others might have viewed as a symbol of hope was a bad omen in Hamid’s eyes.
Three of his uncles and a cousin, along with 23 other members of his extended family, had perished in the civil war. He was determined he and his children would not suffer the same fate. “We ran away because we wanted to live,” he said. “There were a lot of things that could happen to us in that house. Not only could we be bombed, but we could be looted, killed and have our home taken away from us.”
Today, Hamid and his family are among an estimated 120,000 people living in the Zaatri refugee camp, a sprawling mass of tents and prefabricated buildings in northern Jordan, perched 12 miles from the Syrian border. It is the second largest such encampment in the world, yet represents only a fraction of those forced to flee the chaos engulfing Syria.
The flow of men, women and children passing over the country’s borders has increased almost tenfold over the past year, with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR warning that almost 5,000 people are escaping Syria every day into one of its neighbouring nations. Overall, it says, the number of refugees has passed the two million mark.
That stark statistic represents a jump of almost 1.8 million people in 12 months and, with another 4.25 million displaced within the country, means the conflict has now forced about a third of the Syrian population from their homes.
More than 97 per cent of the refugees are hosted by neighbouring countries, which urgently need international support to help them deal with the growing need for humanitarian aid, the UNHCR points out.
Women and children are suffering most of all in the crisis. A study published yesterday by Oxfam and the Beirut-based Abaad Resource Centre for Gender Equality found the vast majority of women were going hungry so their children and husbands could eat. Others were suffering domestic violence, or giving their daughters away in marriage, either to ensure a safer life for them or to find some much-needed money.
And the camps are not always safe havens. “In Lebanon, I can’t let [my daughters] go outside the building alone, because there is a lot of sexual harassment,” one mother told the researchers.
As the crisis accelerates, Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, issued a stark warning yesterday.
“Syria has become the great tragedy of this century – a disgraceful humanitarian calamity with suffering and displacement unparalleled in recent history,” he said. “The only solace is the humanity shown by the neighbouring countries in welcoming and saving the lives of so many.
“At this particular moment, it’s the highest number of displaced people anywhere in the world.”
Oxfam, meanwhile, said the sheer scale of ordinary families affected ought to heighten pressure on a watching world to replace rhetoric with action.
Claire Seaward, the charity’s Syria response campaign manager, said: “We are appalled that this landmark has been reached. Enough is enough. A generation of Syrians is paying too high a price in this conflict. They have been seriously let down by the international community.
“World leaders – especially President Obama and President Putin – must ensure the long-promised peace talks take place as soon as possible. Every day more refugees cross the borders, often traumatised and in need of the basics: food, water and shelter. But the humanitarian response to the crisis is stretched to the limit. Donor countries must continue to dig deep.”
Other aid agencies said the aid response was “dangerously underfunded”. Already, the Department for International Development has committed £348 million to help those affected by the conflict, its largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.
International development secretary Justine Greening said the “terrible” landmark should spur more countries to “step up to the plate”, adding: “We need more money, but we need to see the UK joined by others.”
The number of two million represents Syrians who have registered as refugees or who are pending registration; 52 per cent are children aged 17 or under. In Lebanon, 716,000 people have arrived, meaning its population has grown by a quarter in just two years, the equivalent of Britain’s population exploding by 16 million. A further 460,000 have sought refuge in Turkey, with 110,000 and 168,000 doing likewise in Egypt and Iraq.
More than half a million have fled to Jordan, where Syrian refugees now account for 8 per cent of the 6.2 million population.
Among them are Hamid and his family. They secured their passage to Zaatri having sold all their goats to pay smugglers, who took £160 a head to spirit them and about 125 others to safety. When they arrived last Sunday, they slept in an open area before being given a tent. It is their only worldly possession, but, for the moment, it is enough. “I slept well for the first time in two years,” Hamid said. “We all slept well.”
US and Israel conduct joint test missile defence test
The United States and Israel conducted a joint missile test over the Mediterranean yesterday, in a display of military prowess as the possibility of strikes against the Syrian government looms..
Israel’s defence ministry said the test of its Arrow 3 missile-defence system was performed with the US defence department. The system successfully detected and tracked a medium-range decoy missile that was not carrying a warhead, the ministry said, but did not intercept it.
The morning launch was first reported by Moscow, with Russian defence officials as saying two ballistic “objects” had been fired eastward from the centre of the Mediterranean – roughly in the direction of Syria.
“A successful test was held to check our systems,” Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said. “We will continue to develop and research and equip the Israeli military with the best systems in the world.”
Pentagon spokesman George Little said the US provided technical assistance and support in the exercise.
He said the test was “long planned to help evaluate the Arrow Ballistic Missile Defence system’s ability to detect, track, and communicate information about a simulated threat to Israel”. The test had nothing to do with the US consideration of military action in Syria, he added.
Uzi Rubin, former head of the Arrow system, said the test was “completely technical – nothing connected to Syria”. He said the “only message” it would send was that Israel had “good missile defence systems”.
Nonetheless, the test served as a reminder to Syria and its patron, Iran, that Israel is pressing forward with development of a “multi-layered” missile-defence system. Both Syria and Iran, and their Lebanese ally Hezbollah, possess vast arsenals of rockets and missiles.
The Arrow 3, expected to be operational in about 2016, would be the first such “multilayer” missile-defence system, designed to intercept long-range missiles such the Iranian Shahab, before they re-entered the atmosphere.
Last year, Israel also tested a system designed to intercept missiles with ranges of up to 180 miles, which is expected to be operational by early 2015.