On Syria's southern border, proof of the world's failures
Radwan Mustafa, a 16-year-old boy from Syria, fled the violence in his hometown of Hama four months ago. With the help of the Free Syrian Army, the boy and his four sisters evaded the Assad regime's security forces, slipping through towns and villages until they reached Deraa. From there the siblings crossed the border into Jordan, walking for a few hours to get there.
From the day Radwan arrived at a refugee camp in Al Mafraq, he fell into deep depression, spending most of his days in silence. His mother could not come with them because she was ill and could not have endured the long trek. According to his older sister, the boy was also traumatised from the violence he had witnessed.
A month after arriving in Jordan, Radwan was dead, the victim of a sudden stroke.
On the Jordanian border alone there are hundreds of children like Radwan, suffering from dehydration, trauma, a lack of basic hygiene and other horrors of war. A humanitarian disaster is inevitable if the world does not move quickly to cater to the basic, urgent needs of Syria's refugees, particularly its children.
Last week, I spent four days with the UAE's Red Crescent, visiting various camps, neighbourhoods and tent sites in Jordan's Al Mafraq area. It is one thing to hear stories of suffering, and quite another to listen to children, women and men - victims of Bashar Al Assad's brutality - speaking about what they have suffered. The consequences of this war will be long-lasting, as Syria's children - the country's future - bear a significant portion of Assad's aggression.
The current circumstances in which refugees live - in official camps, with families or in tents - are an easy recipe for fatal illness. For many refugees, wounded or in poor health when they arrive, life across the border means one war has ended but another has just begun.
In the tent site where Radwan lived, other children are unkept, their hair, eyelashes, nails and ears filled with layers of sand because they have no place to bathe. Their state of health is equally poor. One boy I met had recently fallen, fracturing his hand on impact. A doctor explained to me that malnutrition had made his bones brittle.
When a 6-year-old boy was offered a bottle of water by a female Emirati volunteer, he grabbed it and finished the half-litre in one go. A 10-year-old child lost the ability to speak because of trauma, according to a teacher in the study unit in the UAE's field hospital in Al Mafraq.
In many cases, injuries or the effect of the violence would be discovered by coincidence, sometimes too late. Some refugees had bullets or shrapnel in their bodies for weeks. In one case, an 8-year-old girl began having fits three months after she reached Jordan; doctors later traced it to bomb fragments lodged in her skull.
Amman says the refugee crisis is draining its annual budget while only one third of the estimated $700 million (Dh2.57billion) needed to care for refugees is provided by donor countries. Indeed, Jordan is shouldering a large part of this burden. As the number of refugees increases - up to 600 Syrians a day are crossing the border - even the Jordanian army is being pulled in, frequently clashing with Syrian forces to protect fleeing refugees.
And yet the aid pledged to date has not been enough to stem this crisis. As the physical and emotional toll on Syrians, and especially children, grows, Jordan will need help providing adequate medical checks, food and housing to all the Syrian refugees in need.
Today, refugees mostly live on the handouts of passers-by. Housing or tents are provided by Jordanian families. Access to health and education outlets, meanwhile, are nearly nonexistent. Some tents I visited were made of plastic sacks with no mattresses. Killing scorpions has become a daily chore for families.
Many of the refugees had to leave their homes in Syria quickly, carrying little with them beyond their clothes. To survive, some are now marrying their daughters off, often minors and to strangers. A taxi driver in Amman told me that four of his colleagues had married Syrian girls, on condition of providing homes to them and their families. He said he planned to marry a refugee but changed his mind after considering the costs of hosting her family.
Others return to Syria, although they know they will be officially handed over to Syrian authorities. One woman from Homs' Khalidiya neighbourhood said she plans to return to Syria although her house has been completely destroyed. Her husband had been killed in a battle between the FSA and the regime's forces, and her 6-year-old "is insisting to go back and die where my father died".
Many FSA members, meanwhile, sent their children and relatives to Jordan before they joined the anti-regime army. That is why children form the main component of the refugees.
It is not enough for countries to provide money. An efficient system of aid is needed to ensure resources are distributed to all refugees and to provide services beyond food and drink. Half of the children, according to international organisations, suffer from malnutrition. The majority of them suffer from psychological disorders due to the extreme violence they had witnessed.
If the world claims it cannot stop the massacres in Syria because of whatever geopolitical and international constraints, it must be able to do more about this refugee crisis. And it must do so before what happened to Radwan becomes the rule rather than the exception.
On Twitter: @hhassan140
Updated: September 26, 2012 04:00 AM