UN warns that damage goes beyond emotional and physical scars and will affect Syrian society for years to come.
Syria will pay heavy price for trauma of war inflicted on children
Beirut // At four years old, Edmond Michael Abdel Nour can distinguish the sound of a bullet from that of a mortar hitting his Damascus neighbourhood.
A toddler when the conflict in Syria began, Abdel Nour has lived through war for most of his life, learning to correctly identify an outgoing shell from an incoming one before he’s even managed to master the alphabet.
“It’s the kind of knowledge I wish my son didn’t have,” said his mother, Manar Makhoul, 31. “There’s a whole generation of Syrian children who have been robbed of their childhood because of this crisis,” she said by telephone from Damascus.
Syria’s conflict enters its fourth year this month with no sign that the war that has killed more than 140,000 people will end soon. As on all battlefields, children have been the most vulnerable victims, living horrors beyond their years. At least 10,000 of them have died, more than a million are living as refugees and millions more are displaced inside their country, according to a United Nations report last month.
They’ve been summarily executed, recruited for combat, sexually abused, detained and tortured, according to the report. Both Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s government and the rebels trying to topple him are to blame, it said.
“We’ve had children say, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’” said Anthony MacDonald, chief of child protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund in neighbouring Lebanon. “We’ve had experts Unicef has supported who are saying they have been in Afghanistan, in all these wars around the world, but this is one of the worst they have ever seen.”
While the world’s attention turns to the Cold War-style standoff over Ukraine, the death and destruction continue unabated in Syria. Plans by the US to intervene in the country last year were halted after Russia refused to agree, instead forcing Assad to give up chemical weapons and start peace talks.
The generation of Syrians shaped by the war now risk making any lasting peace and security more elusive.
“It’s not just a lost generation in terms of them being killed,” Mr MacDonald said. “It’s a lost generation who are psychologically and physiologically scarred. If their concerns are not addressed now, many of them will turn to other forms of criminal behaviour and antisocial behaviour as a way of coping.”
Economically, the price of having a chunk of Syria’s young population traumatised, poorly educated and badly injured will be steep in a country that has lost more than a third of its output, said Mohsin Khan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
“These are the non-quantifiable costs of war,” said Mr Khan. “This will have an effect on the supply of skilled and professional labour for a considerable period of time, perhaps even as much as a decade. So we should not expect Syria to return to its original pre-2010 period for a long time.”
Before any recovery can begin, the conflict needs to end, a prospect that looks bleak with the collapse of peace talks in Geneva this year. The government and the opposition haven’t managed to agree on the agenda, and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi hasn’t set a date for a new round.
In the meantime, clashes have intensified in the strategic mountainous Qalamoun region as Mr Al Assad’s troops try to sever a major supply route for opposition fighters. The government’s barrel bomb attacks on the northern city of Aleppo and the southern province of Daraa have escalated as has infighting between the fractured rebel groups.
Between January 22, when the talks opened, and February 15, when the second round ended, almost 6,000 people died, making it the bloodiest period of the war, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
On the main streets of Beirut and the Jordanian capital Amman, Syrian children can be seen on virtually every corner.
Pre-teen boys and girls run after passers-by or knock on car windows asking for money. Others sell boxes of tissues at traffic lights. Infants sit in their mothers’ laps on sidewalks. In rural areas, children have been put to work in agriculture.
“We’ve interviewed children as young as 8, 9 and 10 who are forced to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and work till 6pm,” Mr MacDonald said.
Ghourba Hajji, 33, fled her home in the northeastern Hasaka province three months ago with two daughters, aged 3 and 6. She turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut for help. Both children have pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, and she cannot afford to treat them.
“I don’t want them to die,” said Ms Hajji, as she waited for her turn to speak to a UNHCR official.
Mr MacDonald said instances of depression and post-traumatic stress are increasing among the children, manifested through erratic behaviour, broken sleep, bed wetting and aggression.
Fleeing the country and witnessing atrocities are among the causes. The other is the conditions they’re living in now, from becoming main breadwinners, to lack of access to basic services and growing tension at home, which can lead to physical and domestic violence in the family, he said.
Syria’s health ministry is training staff to deal with patients with psychological conditions and is working with the World Health Organisation to set up a strategy for post-conflict Syria, state-run Sana news agency reported this month.
The war was present in the drawings of children aged 7 to 14 at an art exhibition at the government-run cultural centre in Damascus last month. The works displayed featured the Syrian flag with blood dripping from it, children saluting the Syrian Army and a white dove flying.
“It’s a sign of the children’s awareness of what is happening around them,” said Afif Della, the centre’s director.
Ms Makhoul, like many Syrian mothers, stresses over the safety of her son and 7-year-old daughter. The family had a close call in November when a rocket crashed near her son’s school in Bab Touma, injuring five students from another school.
Abdel Nour and his classmates were rushed to the basement and were later given a three-week break. “When the time came for him to return to school, he clung to me, saying, ‘Mom, I’m scared. Bombs may fall.’”
She now limits their outings, and when they nag, she tells them: “There are loud noises outside. It’s too dangerous.
‘‘I don’t like doing that,” added Ms Makhoul. “The lives our children are living are too old for them.”
* Bloomberg News