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Protests continue at Zaatari camp as community leaders emerge

By Taylor Luck - Nov 05,2012 - Last updated at Nov 05,2012

AMMAN — Protests over living conditions in the Zaatari Refugee Camp continued on Sunday as residents stepped up efforts to prevent outbreaks of violence at the facility.

Around 50 residents of the camp in northern Jordan staged a sit-in Sunday afternoon, closing the main access road into the camp to protest against “insulting” food rations.

“We are being given three pieces of bread a day and told to fend for ourselves,” said Mohammed Darawi, a 25-year-old Daraa resident.

“How many nights can I put my son to bed with hunger pains?”

Protesters criticised the UN and local authorities for changing food rations from pre-packaged meals to dried pre-cooked items, claiming that the switch has led to a drop in nutritional content and volume.

Whether or not the protesters will succeed in changing the camp’s food distribution policies, in the eyes of Adnan Al Harmoun, the sit-in was already a success for one simple reason: a lack of violence.

“Showing that we can make our voices heard without violence is the strongest message of all,” noted Harmoun, who is a member of the so-called local committees, popularly elected camp councils designed to act as a mediator between residents and Jordanian and UN officials.

One of the greatest concerns facing the councils has been a rise in violence in the camp, as protests over the past two months have often developed into riots ending with the burning of tents and the injury of both refugees and security personnel.

In order to tackle the upswing of violence, which last month led to the evacuation of local and international staff at the camp, the nascent councils have been busy working to organise protesters, register families and prevent the intervention of potential “trouble makers”.

“The problem is that it only takes one person to turn a protest into a violent riot,” Harmoun said.

“This is why we are working to root out those set on destroying our community rather than building it.”

As part of their efforts to prevent demonstrations from escalating to violence, camp leaders are holding workshops on peaceful protests and are actively preventing “unknown” single men from taking part in large-scale gatherings.

“When we went back and examined all the incidents that have taken place in Zaatari, we discovered that the perpetrators of the violence were often single males who had recently arrived at the camp,” Harmoun said.

Although armed with little proof, council members blame the violence on “infiltrators” aligned with Damascus, claiming they have increased cooperation with local security personnel to root out potential agents.

“There is no question that the agents of Bashar [Assad] are walking among us, and it is our job to prevent them from causing trouble in Jordan,” said Abu Yousef, a council member from Daraa.

The emergence of refugee camp leaders has been a welcome development for relief officials, who say they have long struggled to reach out to the 39,000-strong community.

“It is positive to see people stepping forward and taking ownership of their community,” UN Refugee Agency (UNCHR) Representative in Jordan Andrew Harper told The Jordan Times.

“This has allowed us to communicate with residents and encourage them not to rely on international assistance.”

Whether or not the councils can prevent future acts of violence, camp residents said the presence of community leaders has lead to a greater sense of security for refugees whose lives have been marked by instability.

“If the Syrian people are not allowed to govern themselves in Syria, at least we can govern ourselves in Zaatari,” Abu Yousef said.

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