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Kristof: A guilt-ridden mother flees Syrian war zone

  • Syrian refugees wait in line for a daily bread ration distributed by the World Food Program at the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, April 8, 2013. Of about 500,000 Syrians seeking shelter in Jordan, an estimated 55 percent are under 18, and many are learning the life of an exile, where guile and aggression matter more than books and tests. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times) -- NO SALES --

ZAATARI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan — Those Americans who count themselves as "war-weary" should meet Fawzia, a middle-aged woman who made perhaps the most difficult decision any parent can.

Fawzia was among the refugees straggling across the Syria-Jordan border here. She had just arrived on a dangerous weeklong journey from Ghouta, a Damascus suburb where nerve gas killed hundreds on Aug 21. But for Fawzia, chemical weapons are secondary. The real weapons of mass destruction in Syria are the AK-47s, rockets, missiles and bombs. An agreement brokered by the world's powers that is limited to chemical weapons — while useful — seems a bit irrelevant to the atrocities that define the lives of most Syrians.

No one in Fawzia's family was hurt in the chemical weapons attack, but then there was a ferocious conventional shelling of her neighborhood. Her family members scattered in terror, and Mustafa, her 8-year-old son, disappeared. No one knows what happened to him.

Fawzia decided to flee with two children to Jordan, in hopes of saving them, possibly sacrificing Mustafa. She is racked by guilt.

The United Nations refugee agency, which runs this Zaatari camp, is accustomed to tragedy. An aid worker gently told her how to register Mustafa's name in case he turns up somewhere.

Talking to Syrians like Fawzia, it seems bizarre and narcissistic that in Washington there is talk of whether the Syrian crisis has been "resolved." Maybe the politicians' crisis there has been eased, but the humanitarian catastrophe here just gets worse.

Indeed, in the last couple of weeks, President Bashar Assad seems to have stepped up the pace of bombing, shelling and other conventional attacks on civilian areas.

Fawzia says she would like to see American missile strikes on her country, in hopes that an assault would degrade the Syrian army's capacity for mass murder and shorten the war. That seems by far the most common view among refugees here, although it's not universal. Some worry about civilian casualties or think a strike would be too little, too late.

Whatever one thinks of a military strike to destroy some of Assad's murderous air force — I'm in favor but have very little company in the U.S. — we should find common ground in insisting that international negotiations address not only chemical stockpiles but also humanitarian access in Syria.

That would mean demanding that the Syrian government and rebels alike allow aid workers and food and medical assistance across their lines. It's not impossible that both sides would agree under pressure, and that might ease some of the worst suffering within Syria. Valerie Amos, the U.N. humanitarian chief, tells me that nearly 7 million Syrians will need aid to survive. Humanitarian access could save some of those lives and also reduce the hemorrhage of refugees.


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