'Vicious circle' of childhood illness at Syria's Zaatari refugee camp

Sand blows across the Zaatari refugee camp in Syria. Credit: ITV News

Zaatari is a Syrian city in exile, peopled by the disposed; the victims of a war that has taken from them homes, family and, finally, dignity.

Even from a distance it is impossible to take in its vast size: a sand-blown camp stretching across the desert.

It is a place so desolate that only the truly desperate would call it home. More than 100,000 refugees have little alternative.

First impressions can be deceptive. There’s a crowded market street, with stalls piled high with heaps of shining tomatoes and giant cabbages. There are bakeries, clothes stores and a barber shop.

Only when you talk to the people do you sense their frustration, their anxiety, and increasingly their anger.

For sure, the UNHCR and a crowd of international aid agencies ensure there is food and water so no one should die of want.

There are schools and clinics too, though neither yet match the demand.

But the atmosphere inside the tents and trailers homes is one of despair. Zaatari is a place not to live, but to endure.

In the camp’s only hospital for sick children, a mother cradles her daughter, Farrah, who is nine months old and severely underweight.

"We fled from Syria because we feared for the lives of our children,’’ she tells me. "But here we watch our children die slowly."

She is speaking not literally, for her daughter is being well cared for by doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres.

But still her words contain a potent truth. What is dying here is any sense of hope. And that’s one of life’s necessities that no aid agency can supply.

The citizens of Zaatari have no way of knowing when they will be able to return to Syria, and when, if ever, they might be able to resume shattered lives.

Almost every tent harbours a heartbreaking story, like the two brothers we met, aged four and 11, with limbs broken by Syrian shells - injuries that might never fully heal.

"I wish I could go back to Homs, pick up the rubble of my home and live under it,’’ says Abdul Azeem.

His infant son, like so many of Zaatari’s 16,000 children, is sick with a combination of diarrhea, dehydration and malnutrition.

It is, according to one doctor, Zaatari’s "vicious circle" of suffering. To add to all the rest.

Aid agencies say that routine childhood diseases can be made fatal by extreme heat and overcrowding in refugee camps. Credit: ITV News