A little boy, not more than 8 or 10, pulls the hood of his gray sweatshirt over his head and keeps pulling until is covers his eyes and face. He is sobbing. The hood is only chance he has at privacy as his small body shakes and a packed bus accelerates away behind him. Someone he loves is on that bus. I don’t know how to put tears into letters or distill raw emotion into abstract marks on paper. A sacred, shattered awe is all that you can feel around 5pm at the returns area of Za’atari refugee camp. There is wonder when new life comes into the world and another when humans give up and cease to hold onto life.
A gentleman with a salt-and-pepper beard and a purple button-up shirt waves one last hungry wave as the bus rumbles into motion. His wife and three teen-age daughters have just packed like sardines into the bus along with scores of other emotional passengers. The coach is pulling away and making the short trip to the Syrian border. He plans to follow his dear ones in a few weeks, once he has sorted out some paper work, but for now he says “they are traveling toward death”. No tears escape his eyes, but his face is weeping. The killing that has descended upon his homeland is unconscionable, he tells me – something forbidden in all religions. We are all humans and accountable to one God. Inside the bus a woman looks out and wipes her eyes. The village to which the women are returning has been mostly flattened. The house to which they hope to return may still have a few rooms standing. As his family pulls away into an, at best, uncertain future, my friend reflects on his last year as a refugee. He and his family have been living outside of the camp in an urban area of Jordan, but the cost of living has become unsustainable.
Swirling around the bus are knots of Syrians with emotions ranging from quietly morose to almost euphoric. The giddy euphoria of the damned but resigned. Last night was the first real taste of the coming Jordanian desert winter and the displaced people are now missing the concept of home, which they once knew, more than ever. Many tell me that they slept last night standing up as rain water rushed through their tents and they held their babies in their arms. One man spent hours with a bucket bailing water, before he finally yielded to exhaustion and decided to wait until morning to dry his tent and belongs. A 19 year old mother of a beautiful 3 year old daughter tells how her baby’s lips and face were blue the night before from cold. Bravely they say, “better to die quickly under the shells, missiles, and airplanes than to die slowly of heat, cold, and sickness.” Their bravado may soon melt away as they return to the shattered remnants of the life they once knew, only to find that their memories are just that – memories. A teary eyed woman once told me of her return trip to her flattened village. “It was the worst mistake of my life. It was like the end of the world.” The challenges of winter that now face refugees will not be mitigated for those who return home, but merely added to the constant danger of instant death and disfigurement which stalked them in their home villages. Many are aware that they are not making an easy choice. That they are not making a choice for self-preservation. Somehow, it feels to them the deeper and more right choice though. They may ride to death, but at least it is a life or death of their own choosing. It is a death with dignity.
The desert autumn sun is piercing from behind a bank of clouds and scraping toward the horizon. The faces behind the bus windows are now gone and none but God knows if and when my friend in the purple shirt will see his girls again. I quicken my pace and try to beat my unshed tears into the earth as I make my own emotional escape. A boy with gentle, wide eyes and a tousle of blondish hair matches my speed and patters along beside. He cocks his head as he studies me and asks simply, “why are you upset?”