March 13, 2017

Killed, injured and forced to fight: 2016 was the deadliest year for Syria's children

Six-year-old Ahmad sits in a damaged school in Idlib. He says: “I wanted to become a doctor but perhaps I won’t become anything because our school was attacked. We used to play a lot in the schoolyard but now I’m afraid of coming here. My dad might take us to another school in another village."

Photo credit: UNICEF/UN055730

Ewan Watt

Online Editor, Theirworld

With the Syrian conflict about to enter its seventh year, a UNICEF report lays bare the terrible violations against the country's children.

The number of children in Syria who were killed, maimed or recruited by armed forces increased dramatically last year.

At least 652 were killed - 255 of them in or near a school - said the United Nations children's agency UNICEF in a shocking report today. That's a 20% rise on the number of verified deaths the previous year.

More than 850 children were recruited to fight in the conflict in 2016, more than double the previous year's figure.

But these figures only tell a fraction of the horror being endured by Syria's children.

Baraa, seven, stands in front of her damaged school in Idlib. She says: “I felt the ground was moving. We ran outside and smoke was everywhere. There were kids lying on the ground and people were running from outside to save those who were stuck under the rubble. I don’t know if I’ll go back to school but now it is damaged already.”

Photo credit: UNICEF/UN055729/

“The depth of suffering is unprecedented. Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis, their lives turned upside down,” said Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. 

“Each and every child is scarred for life, with horrific consequences on their health, well-being and future."

With the conflict in Syria about to enter its seventh year this week, the new report - Hitting Rock Bottom - lays bare the terrible violations against children during 2016.

"Beyond the bombs, bullets and explosions, countless children are dying in silence from preventable diseases that could easily be cured," it says. 

The report comes just days after Save The Children found widespread evidence of "toxic stress" and mental health issues among children inside Syria. 

Theirworld also recently produced a briefing document about how toxic stress - prolonged exposure to high levels of stress from trauma, violence, neglect or deprivation - is affecting the development of young children in humanitarian emergencies like the Syrian conflict.

After six years of war, nearly six million children now depend on humanitarian assistance - 12 times as many as in 2012, said UNICEF's report. 

Saja, 13, says: “I love playing football. When I play football, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all." Saja lost her four best friends (Fatima, Zahr’a, Cedra and Wala’a) in a bomb attack in the Bab Al-Nairab neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo more than two years ago. She lost her leg in the same attack and with it her dream of being a gymnast. She has never lost hope and resolutely makes the long walk to Kasem Amin School every day to continue her education.

Photo credit: UNICEF / Al-Issa

Millions of children have been displaced, some up to seven times, and more than 2.3 million children are living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

The most vulnerable among Syria’s children are the 2.8 million in hard-to-reach areas, including 280,000 children living under siege, almost completely cut off from humanitarian aid.

The conflict has driven more than 1.7 million children out of school in Syria. Many have been pushed into early marriage and child labour and in more than two-thirds of households children are working to support their families - some in extremely harsh conditions unfit even for adults.

One in three schools cannot be used because they are destroyed, damaged, sheltering displaced families or being used for military purposes. 

In 2016, at least 87 attacks on schools and education personnel were recorded and more than 255 children were killed while at school or near school, says the report.

Some schools were attacked repeatedly like in Idlib, where 26 children and six teachers were killed in the deadliest attack on a school last year.

Despite the horrors and hardships they have endured, many children are still in school or desperate to return.

“We continue to witness the courage of Syria’s children. Many have crossed frontlines just to sit for school exams," said Cappelaere.

"They insist on learning, including in underground schools. There is so much more we can and should do to turn the tide for Syria’s children.” 

Here's one example of what can be done to help Syrian children get their lives back to normal. It's an underground amusement park where girls and boys can play without fear of attack. 

The "Land of Childhood" was created by architecture students in Damascus, who realised there are few safe places left where children can play. 

Two girls play within the safety of the Land of Childhood underground basement

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

A child plays at the Land of Childhood underground playground in Damascus

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

A child plays in the ball court

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Three girls wait their turn to use one of the games

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Children take a ride on a Ferris wheel

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Abdulaziz, 10, who lost his father during the war comes to the Land of Childhood to spend time with his friends

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Two children look through a show window inside the tunnel that provides a safe passage for children between the two basements

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Children play on the train and in the plastic house

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

7-year-old Massa watches other children playing

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

A child waits for the worker to operate the Ferris wheel

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Children cross the tunnel that provides a safe passage between the two basements

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

Children wait in line to buy some candy floss

Photo credit: UNICEF / Alshami

It took two years to make and about 200 children use it every day. 

One of the creators, Yaseen, was a fourth-year architecture student when the siege forced him to leave university a year before graduation. 

“Designing this project was a relief from the war photojournalism that I started doing after the war began. 

"I wanted to retrieve my old skills as an architect to produce something that brings happiness to children,” he explained.

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