The Unwanted Refugees Of The Iraq War

An unidentified Iraqi woman, of Palestinian ancestry, kneels to pray in her tent at a UNHCR refugee camp set up in Ruwaishid, Jordan, about 50 miles from the border with Iraq.
CBS/UNHCR, Phil Sands
This story was written for CBSNews.com by Amman, Jordan-based reporter Kristen Gillespie.

In the middle of the empty, rocky desert on Jordan's easternmost flank, a group of fabric tents flap loudly in the winter wind. It's a small camp set up by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) before the war with Iraq began in the spring of 2003.

The mass exodus of Iraqis anticipated in the weeks after Saddam Hussein's regime fell didn't materialize, but about 1,300 people did come. When they arrived, they were placed in provisional camps like this one until a more permanent solution could be found.

One of the dozen tents is home to Miriam, her husband and two small children. They're Sunni Muslims of Palestinian origin, and like the nearly 100 others left in this camp, they say they were threatened by Iraqi Shiite militias beginning just days after the regime fell on April 9, 2003.

Thinking they would spend a few weeks in Jordan at the most, they left with the clothes on their backs and ended up in this tent 50 miles from the border with Iraq, surrounded craggy desert as far as the eye can see. They've been here ever since.

The tents are of a thick canvas held together by steel poles and reinforced on the inside with plastic sheets and military-style blankets. Most don't have electricity. Residents bring buckets of water stored in raised communal tanks. Inside Miriam's tent, the smell of a small gas heater fills a room that's dark and stuffy, even in the middle of the day. Since the camp is in the middle of the desert, there's very little to do.

"Just sitting here, we've become bored and mentally tired," Miriam says. People in the camp have stopped leaving their tents, she says, and the makeshift school and handicraft activities that kept people occupied have stopped due to a lack of will and lack of funding.

"Even a prisoner knows how long his sentence will be," says Miriam. She says she fights depression, and her children frequently face infections and skin disorders from the harsh living conditions. Her three-year-old son, Maan, who was born in the camp, has lesions on his legs and his head was shaved due to a skin disorder.

As Miriam speaks, the wind shakes her tent's soft walls. The floor is covered with heavy blankets, to soften the uneven terrain. The tent is not solid enough to keep out mice and scorpions, and the wind whips at the bottom edges of the tent. Still, the inside is spotless, with simple wood furniture neatly arranged. A crumpled page from a 2005 calendar is pinned to the blanketed wall. It shows a photograph of a Mediterranean-style villa surrounded by palm trees overlooking a lake, and serves as an unwitting reminder that time has stood still in this camp.

In another part of the tent sits a small, single gas-fueled burner. A banged-up teapot rests on top of it. Miriam says she's afraid to cook during the winter. Two years ago, a six-year-old girl was killed in her tent when the wind blew the flames out from under the gas heater. Within minutes, several tents had burned to the ground. "I'm afraid a strong wind will come through and set the whole tent ablaze," she says.

  • Tucker Reals

    Tucker Reals is the CBSNews.com foreign editor, based at the CBS News London bureau.