x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

There is no answer for Syria's children who suffer this war

How will Syrians reply to difficult questions from a generation scarred by civil war?

His face was pale as the white sheets covering his body; his hollow eyes were filled with tears. He cried: "No, not like this, not like this," trying to cover his tragedy.

Laith, not quite 3 years old, was all too conscious of his present and his future, his amputated right leg and his paralysed hands. He had been pulled out of the rubble after his parents were killed in the shelling of his family's house on the outskirts of Damascus.

Public hospitals would not admit him, judging this young boy to be a terrorist or an infiltrator, considering his neighbourhood. Private hospitals demanded payment in advance, and this was no time to be collecting money from other unfortunate people.

So Laith spent 10 days in a field hospital short of equipment and medication; his right leg was amputated near the torso. Fearing for his other leg, his maternal aunt and aid volunteers collected the money for several surgeries. When Laith woke up, he was shocked that his parents weren't there, and scared by the absence of his missing right leg. His left leg was surrounded with metal plates and other braces. And he was unable to move his hands.

"He broke my heart when he cried out in shame as the doctor was showing me his legs," an aid volunteer called Suha told me. "He is so young and weak, yet he knows exactly what is waiting for him. His life is full of calamities - and for what guilt or crime?"

Suha was trying to arrange assistance to rescue Laith. X-rays showed numerous black dots, large and small, showing shrapnel riddling his whole body. While visiting him in the hospital, Suha took him a toy, to cheer him up and gain his trust. She took a picture with her mobile phone. He smiled when she asked if he wanted to see his photo, but he wept when he could not move his fingers to hold the phone.

"I was choking and couldn't hold back my tears," she told me, crying. "I had to remain still in front of him. I can never forget his pain, fear and embarrassment."

Laith's aunt, a teacher, was angry and miserable; she must now care for Laith and his two older siblings, both under 10, and for her own four children.

It is difficult to prove Laith's identity because all of his documents were lost in the wreckage.

A volunteer lawyer helped to get a new identification document, but Laith's paternal uncle is his guardian and his approval is needed at every step. The uncle, who did not visit Laith or his siblings, puts a stick in the wheel every time he must sign any document related to Laith's treatment. He may be trying to get some money for his cooperation.

When the private hospital could no longer be afforded, Laith left with his aunt, although he was still in critical condition. Suha has not been able to reach him since then, because the neighbourhood is too dangerous and full of checkpoints.

Laith's story is Syria's story. As in any conflict, children are vulnerable and forgotten. One goal of the Syrian uprising was to emancipate the young from fear, the deficiencies of the state and subjugation. But the turmoil has blocked education and encouraged child trafficking, beggary, child labour and even the trade in human organs. Syria is a country now of unidentified babies, of orphans, of traumatised and physically disabled kids. We are leaving these problems for later; we have decided that our duty now is merely to topple this oppressive and corrupt regime.

But beyond the romanticisation of the uprising and beyond the blame game, some simple questions must be asked: what awaits the children? What can we tell them when they grow up? How can we justify our struggles, our inaction and our treachery? Can we dare to look into their eyes and tell them that their childhoods were less innocent and their futures were less precious? Can we dare to explain why so many children's deaths have been so ugly - and that we have made them ugly by posting the images of bodies that had been beheaded and distorted?

The easiest part will be telling them that once we had a brutal dictatorship responsible for endless atrocities. But will we tell them how many of their playmates died in refugee camps, from cold weather or sudden fires? Will we tell them of the squabbles to be the "legitimate and sole representative" of the Syrian people? Of the humanitarian aid promised but not delivered? That there was not enough money to save Laith's right leg? That we all kept saying "no" to negotiation?

Unquestionably, it is absurd to talk about dialogue after 60,000 dead, but how will we respond to Laith when he says: "Why didn't you save my leg? I could have been one of your own children."

 

Jasmine Roman is a pseudonym for a Syrian writer

On Twitter: @JasmineRoman01