ZAATARI CAMP, Jordan – Cranes are lifting trailers into place and tents are being packed away as international aid workers rush to winterize a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan — trying to avoid a repeat of last year when three days of torrential rain turned the massive site into a muddy swamp.
Warm clothing, blankets and electric heaters are being prepared for distribution to the desert camp's 120,000 residents, mostly women and children.
In January 2013, howling winds tore down some tents and flooding piled more misery on those who fled Syria's civil war. Hundreds were displaced from their temporary shelters in the Zaatari camp. Exposed to freezing temperatures, some refugees attacked aid workers at a food distribution center, injuring a dozen before being dispersed by Jordanian riot police.
Aid workers said they have a better winter plan this year.
A drainage system was set up to dump floodwaters outside the camp and efforts are being made to keep the refugees warm and dry, said Kilian Kleinschmidt, who runs Zaatari for the U.N. refugee agency.
"We may be a little late, but we feel we're on top of things," added Kleinschmidt, nicknamed "the mayor" of the camp.
More than 560,000 Syrians have fled to Jordan since the uprising against President Bashar Assad broke out in March 2011. Activists say more than 120,000 people have been killed in the civil war. As the fighting increased in recent months — especially in southern towns — the number of refugees has risen.
Throughout the region, about 2 million Syrians have crossed into neighboring countries, including Turkey and Lebanon, to escape the bloodshed. The cold and wet January weather makes conditions for them miserable as well, and similar preparations by aid workers are underway elsewhere.
In Zaatari, which is 14 kilometers (10 miles) south of the Syrian border, many of the refugees' plastic tents will be replaced in the coming weeks with prefabricated trailers donated by Gulf Arab states, said Andy Needham, a press officer with the U.N. refugee agency.
"It is the key step to keeping people safe and warm during winter," he said Tuesday, adding that at least 1,000 have been set up in the past four weeks. Needham blamed the slow pace on delays by Jordanian contractors.
Electric heaters and bottles of gas will be distributed to households soon, he said.
As Needham spoke, dozens of women and children, many of them barefoot, gathered around U.N. officials and pleaded for trailers. When their appeals turned into shouting, Jordanian riot police moved in quickly, dispersing them.
Refugee Bassam Qashali, 24, said some trailers were being sold on the black market in the camp for $700.
"They get sold and resold on the black market, but not many can afford to buy them," said Qashali, an ex-rebel fighter who lost his right eye to a sniper last year in Syria's southern town of Daraa. He said he has been waiting for a trailer for 14 months.
Farther west, outside warehouses run by the Norwegian Refugee Council, hundreds of men and women lined up separately to receive blankets and kits of children's clothing. U.N. officials checked the refugees' ration cards and entered information onto computers before allowing in small groups of people.
It was another lesson learned from last year, when refugees cramming the warehouses pushed and shoved each other and the aid workers to get the winter items.
"We planned the distribution to be organized for the camp population to feel dignity and honor," said Robert Beer, the council's program director. He called the preparations an "enormous challenge," with workers "racing against time to get the job done as soon as possible."
UNICEF, the U.N. agency helping refugee children, is contributing to the effort in Jordan and other host countries. In Zaatari, UNICEF is providing 35,000 clothing kits — which include scarves, hats, sweaters and boots, as well as 24,000 blankets, said communications officer Melanie Sharpe.
Residents of Zaatari are grateful for the effort by the aid workers — but they also look forward to leaving the camp for a peaceful Syria.
"We appreciate what's being done to help us get by the harsh winter, especially to keep our kids safe and warm, but we prefer to see our tyrant president gone so that we can return home," said Hussein Abu Khaled. The 30-year-old father of three said he fled the Damascus suburb of Ghouta on Aug. 21, the day it was struck with chemical weapons.