2016 the worst for Syrian children in six years of war

Sunday 19/03/2017
Broken generation. A Syrian child pulls a plastic crate carrying water bottles in the once rebel-held Shaar neighbourhood in Aleppo. (AFP)

Beirut - “Someone listen, some­one hear. We want our childhood back.” The plea was made by war-afflicted Syrian children in Song for Syria as the brutal con­flict entered its seventh year.

Drastic escalation of violence in 2016 caused the highest annual number of recorded children casu­alties in the Syrian war with at least 652 deaths, a 20% increase from 2015, a UNICEF report stated.

“These are the numbers that we have been able to document. They are absolutely not the final ones. They may be only a portion of the (real) number of children killed,” said UNICEF Director for the MENA region Geert Cappelaere after visit­ing Damascus, Aleppo in the north and Homs in western Syria.

“In 2016, every six hours a child was killed or severely injured in Syr­ia,” he said. “Some 255 were killed or severely wounded on their way to school or while sitting in classes… The (Syria) song is meant to remind us of the sufferings that children are going through in Syria today as the war is far from being finished,” Cap­pelaere said.

Schools and medical facilities have been repeatedly attacked, especially in rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo and rural Damas­cus, which could explain the high number of casualties among school­children. Also, 2016 witnessed a strong engagement of the Russian military in support of the Syrian re­gime whose aerial bombings were blamed for large numbers of deaths and injuries.

“Everybody, every party is ac­countable and has been responsible for killing and injuring children,” Cappelaere said. “Schools have been used for military purposes in complete violation of international law.”

Cappelaere said UNICEF has no indication that children have been exposed to chemical agents.

After six years of war, nearly 6 million children in Syria depend on humani­tarian assis­tance, a 12- fold increase from 2012, the UNICEF report said. More than 2.5 million live in hard-to-reach areas, including 280,000 children in be­sieged ones. An additional 2.5 mil­lion are refugees in other countries in the region.

“These are children in dire need,” Cappelaere said. “All parties (to the conflict) should ensure that human­itarian teams inside Syria have at any moment unconditional access to the children in need.”

The UNICEF official stressed that the use of child soldiers is on the rise in Syria with at least 850 be­ing recruited by armed factions last year, more than twice as many as in 2015.

“Everyone across the board has been recruiting child soldiers,” Cap­pelaere said, noting that children as young as 10 and 11 years have been used in combat missions and as spies. “Some of the children make war to get income. It is part of a coping mechanism just like families marrying their girls at an early age,” he said.

He said UNICEF needed $1.4 bil­lion to address the most pressing needs of children in Syria and refu­gee children in neighbouring coun­tries in 2017.

Song for Syria was released by UNICEF to mark the March 15th anniversary of the start of the war. The song carries “a message to the world from Syrian children reclaim­ing their childhood”, said the song’s Jordanian composer, Zade Dirani.

“Music has the amazing power to bring people together and keep hope alive,” said Dirani. “We must hear the children’s plea. All they are asking for is to have their childhood back and an end to a war that is not of their making.”

Children were among the first victims of the government’s brutal crackdown that sparked the upris­ing that degenerated into war. Resi­dents in the southern Syrian city of Daraa marched to demand the re­lease of teenage students arrested for writing anti-government slogans on school walls. They were tortured in detention.

Save The Children also recently released an alarming report, saying Syrian children are showing symp­toms of “toxic stress” and are at­tempting self-harm and suicide in response to prolonged exposure to war.

Speech disorders, losing the ca­pacity to speak and incontinence are symptoms that children may carry into adulthood, the international charity’s report said. It warned that “the risk of a broken generation, lost to trauma and extreme stress, has never been greater.”

However, Cappelaere said there was hope to save Syria’s children.

“I have left Syria not only with devastation in my mind but also hope,” he said. “Children do not want to be referred to as a lost gen­eration. They want to move on.”

“For 15 to 20 long minutes we were driving in the midst of nothing but… rubble and then suddenly we saw tens of children walking with their backpacks on their way to school. It is a moment I will never forget,” Cappelaere said. “It is defi­nitely not yet a lost generation but we need to act now.”