x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Children pay price of Syria's war

Shot at, tortured and raped. Two million Syrian children are experiencing horrors that are causing 'layers and layers of emotional trauma', a new report by the Save the Children charity says.

A Syrian girl cries following an explosion in Aleppo. As well as witnessing atrocities, children are being deliberately targeted for abuse, or to be used near front lines as porters or human shields.
A Syrian girl cries following an explosion in Aleppo. As well as witnessing atrocities, children are being deliberately targeted for abuse, or to be used near front lines as porters or human shields.

BEIRUT // A boy of 12 sees his best friend shot through the heart. Another of 15 is held in a cell with 150 other people, and taken out every day to be put in a giant wheel and burnt with cigarettes.

These are just some of the horrors experienced by Syrian children who are perhaps the greatest victims of their country's conflict, suffering "layers and layers of emotional trauma", according to Save the Children's chief executive.

They have been shot at, tortured and raped during two years of unrest and civil war, the international charity based in London said yesterday.

Two million children face malnutrition, disease, early marriage and severe trauma, innocent victims of a conflict that has already claimed an estimated 70,000 lives, the charity said.

"This is a war where women and children are the biggest casualty," chief executive Justin Forsyth said on a visit to Lebanon, where 340,000 Syrians have fled.

Mr Forsyth spoke of meeting a Syrian refugee boy aged 12 who saw his best friend killed outside a bakery. "His friend was shot through the heart. Initially he thought he was joking because there was no blood. They didn't realise he had been killed until they took his shirt off," he said.

New research carried out among refugee children by Bahcesehir University in Turkey that found that one in three reported having been punched, kicked or shot at, the Save the Children report said.

Two thirds of the children surveyed had been separated from their families by the conflict and a third had experienced the death of a close friend or family member.

"All these children tell you these stories in a matter-of-fact way and then you realise that there are layers and layers of emotional trauma there," said Mr Forsyth.

Syria's civil war started with peaceful protests against the dynastic rule of the president, Bashar Al Assad. But his forces shot at protesters and arrested thousands and the revolt turned into a civil war. Rebels now control large swaths of Syria.

Millions have fled their homes for safer ground or neighbouring countries. Save the Children says 80,000 people are living in barns, parks and caves and children struggle to find enough to eat.

Both government forces and rebels have been accused of targeting civilians and committing war crimes. Refugees say Mr Al Assad's soldiers are directly targeting children.

Mr Forsyth met one child who described being in a prison cell with 150 people, including 50 children. "He was taken out every day and put in a giant wheel and burnt with cigarettes. He was 15. The trauma that gives a child is devastating."

Save the Children says some young boys are also being used by armed groups as porters, runners and human shields, bringing them close to the front line.

Rape is being used to deliberately punish people, said Mr Forsyth, and was underreported because of the sensitivity of the issue, especially among conservative communities.

"In most conflicts, over 50 per cent of rapes are against children. And I am sure that is the case in this conflict too."

Fear of sexual violence is repeatedly given to Save the Children as one of the main reasons for families fleeing their homes.

There are also reports of early marriage of young girls by families trying to reduce the number of mouths they have to feed, or hoping a husband will be able to provide greater security from the threat of sexual violence.

Mr Forsyth met a Syrian family in Lebanon who told their 16-year-old daughter to marry an older man. "Her mother said she was beautiful and every time the soldiers came to the house she thought: 'They are going to rape her'."

"Rape is being used deliberately to punish people," he said, and girls as young as 14 were being married off.

Save the Children works in neighbouring countries and within Syria but Damascus has restricted access to aid organisations, especially in opposition-held territory.

The charity called for unfettered and safe access to humanitarian agencies, including "access across the lines of the conflict", and for Damascus to ease bureaucratic restraints.

Despite pledges of Dh5.5 billion by international donors for a response plan to help Syria's displaced, only 25 per cent has been funded, according to the United Nations.