x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 22 September 2017

When tanks crush children, Syrians must ask: who are we?

Bashar Al Assad's cold words to his disloyal dissidents in his latest speech were very clear: You either follow us like sheep, or we will slaughter your children like sheep.

Pep Montserrat for The National
Pep Montserrat for The National

On the first day of June, a child held up a sign during a peaceful protest in the northern village of Binnish in Syria's Idleb province. His sign asked: "What is the meaning of childhood without freedom?" The question was followed by the opposition's one-word demand to President Bashar Al Assad: "Leave."

From the schoolboys of Daraa who were tortured after writing anti-regime slogans on the walls, to 13-year-old Hamza Al Khateeb, who was mutilated and tortured to death, Syrian children have been on the front lines and front pages of the revolution.

Since March 15 last year, hundreds of children have been killed, maimed, detained and tortured alongside tens of thousands of Syrian adults. However, in recent months, Syrian children have faced a more extreme and specialised brutality: close-range and systematic murder in serial massacres across the country.

Last March, in the Homs neighbourhood of Karm Al Zeitoun, two dozen children were viciously stabbed to death along with their mothers by regime-controlled shabbiha from neighbouring areas. On May 25, 49 children were killed in the village of Tal Daw in the Houla region of Homs province. Many of them were slaughtered with knives and butchered with axes. On June 7, in the tiny village of Qubair in Hama province, dozens of children were slaughtered alongside the majority of the village's residents. Most of the bodies were stolen and the homes were torched, but the bloody traces and eerie silence lingered.

In the aftermath of these massacres, only images remain: as evidence, as witnesses and as cold, calculated messages of terror from the regime to the people.

Several significant, destructive results have emerged from these calculations.

By outsourcing the dirty work to local militias, the regime distanced itself from the monstrosity of the crimes while deceptively placing the perpetrators within the blurry category of "armed gangs". The massacres amplified the already sectarian-charged environment as once peaceful neighbouring villages suddenly turned violent.

The massacres also left a physical vacuum in neighbourhoods and villages. Surviving families, terrified for their children, left their homes and land behind and chose to live as refugees in safer areas. These territorial gains serve the regime, carving sections of Syria into havens exclusive to Assad regime supporters. As one activist from Hama said: "They are pushing us east of the Orontes River."

Such loaded claims seem outlandish until you map out the massacres and realise you can pinpoint the locations of future massacres in specific areas of Homs, Hama and Latakia. Another activist said: "We are 20 massacres away from an opposition-free Syrian coast."

The recent United Nations Security Council report Children and Armed Conflict details accounts of "grave violations against children" by the Assad regime since March last year. These violations include children being among the civilians targeted by regime shells and bullets aimed at residential areas and peaceful protesters. Refugee families have been shot at while trying to flee across the borders to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan. Children as young as eight have been threatened, interrogated and tortured. Some have also been abducted from their homes and used as human shields on regime tanks entering opposition towns.

The report also included the Free Syrian Army's practice of recruiting people under 17 to bear arms and serve as assistants in field clinics. While these violations are deplorable, they are in no way - as some morally bankrupt pundits have suggested - equal to the violence committed by the regime.

Last spring, there was a widely spread rumour about a sectarian chant that explained the "true" intentions of the revolution: "We will send the Alawites to the grave and the Christians to Beirut." It would be inexcusable if it were ever chanted. But it never was. This invented chant instilled fear among minorities who were warned of their future if the Assad regime falls.

Misplaced fear has led to the emergence of the "ultra-Alawites" in Homs, who call Mr Al Assad "Sunni" for being too weak and compassionate when dealing with the enemy.

As a Syrian, it is extremely difficult to hear terms like "cleansing", "extermination", "sectarian conflict" and "civil war". It is even more difficult to look at children's corpses wrapped inside bloodied blankets, lined side by side like dolls. And I wonder, who are these gruesome images for?

The regime knew these crimes would be recorded and the images would spread. The opposition's documentation became the regime's warning signals for the darkness ahead. After decades of "fear of the unknown" tactics, the graphic pictures are the new terror tactic of choice for the regime. If the people decide to not fear the unknown, let them fear the (horrific) known.

It is tempting to view these images as abstractions of violence. I found myself staring at the smooth white curvature of a broken skull, or the pinkish-grey twists spilling out the back of a boy's head. But these gory details distract from a more important narrative. What was this little girl thinking before the knife pressed against the thin skin of her neck? How many times did it have to pass back and forth before it killed her screams? And what about this infant girl with her long eyelashes and gold earrings? I want to imagine her in deep, peaceful slumber, but a sharp piece of bone juts out of a deep cut along her forehead. It is from the axe that hit her tiny face without mercy. Did she feel pain? Was she frightened?

And what was the Syrian man thinking while holding the knife against the neck of a girl he knew, or wielding an axe above the head of the baby daughter of his neighbours? Did he really believe they needed to be killed so that he would survive?

The regime likes to blame Al Qaeda or unknown foreign elements for these crimes. But these are not Al Qaeda's tactics. In fact, there are few historical precedents for systematically murdering children by hand, one by one. Far from just instilling fear, these ruthless massacres and their traces confront every Syrian with questions as devastating as the images: who are we as a people? What have we become? And how did we get here?

Mr Al Assad's supporters may be disillusioned by his weakness. But his cold words to his disloyal dissidents in his latest speech were very clear. His actions were even clearer: You either follow us like sheep, or we will slaughter your children like sheep.

I used to feel awe at the courage of children like the boy in Binnish. They used to give me hope for the future. Maybe one day they will again. For now though, after studying the gruesome aftermath of butchered innocence, I want to tell this little boy to go home, to be safe. But the truth is, Syria's children are not safe - not in their homes and not in the street, not in a protest and not in their sleep.

The revolutionaries made a choice to face death instead of humiliation, but the children made no such choice. They were killed in the most heinous ways imaginable so their deaths would bring ultimate humiliation to their families. The regime is gambling that their images will be weapons of future hate and instruments of irreparable sectarian tears in Syrian society.

Or their images could be reminders of what Syrians fight - a spiteful regime that is willing to kill its most innocent for absolute power. Only Syrians will decide whether they can mend what has been torn. Until then, we will continue to add images of slain children to our collective history.

Amal Hanano is the pseudonym of a Syrian-American writer. On Twitter: @amalhanano