For Aleppo’s children, playgrounds are underground

Sunday 09/10/2016
Girls perform during the opening of an underground centre for children in Aleppo, Syria. (Reuters)

Beirut - Ten-year-old Raghad is among the Syrian chil­dren all too aware what the war means for her country’s future. She knows how beautiful Syria once was and knows of its lush natural landscapes but, asked whether she would like to enjoy them again, she looked surprised.

“But Syria’s nature has been de­stroyed by the bombardments and the war,” she said. Her voice, that of a child who has seen too much too young, adds: “Isn’t that obvi­ous?”

Raghad said she would love to be able to play outside like children in other countries but living in east­ern Aleppo, which has come under repeated sieges, the risks of riding on swings and playing in the park are too great. Sniper fire, missiles and air strikes are daily occurrenc­es in what was once Syria’s indus­trial centre but is now at the heart of the country’s bloody conflict.

Instead, Raghad is among the 250 children who attend one of a group of five underground play centres in rebel-held Aleppo.

The organisation Space of Hope — Fusshat Amal in Arabic — devel­oped the basement playgrounds after seven children were killed last November while playing in the street in Aleppo’s Salaheddin dis­trict.

The underground play centres, where children participate in art, reading and games and learn how to access the internet, work in tandem with Aleppo’s schools. As some schools opened the au­tumn term, the city is gripped by the greatest violence it has seen. Eastern Aleppo faces the terrifying threat of “bunker buster” bombs, which are designed for attacks on hardened military installations. They have the capacity to destroy the basements from which Space of Hope works. Two major hospi­tals have been out of service by the munitions.

Space of Hope officials said they would keep the basement play­grounds open. It is a case of provid­ing the least dangerous option for the community’s youngest mem­bers.

“This [the bunker-buster bomb] is a sophisticated weapon. It can destroy bunkers and tunnels,” said Space of Hope’s Ahmad Hadad, from Aleppo, “but schools and the [underground] schools will work together.”

In one of the centres, 6-year-old Ayman said he wants to be a foot­ball coach when he grows up and enjoys practising his technique in the centre: one 6×10-metre room is used as a makeshift sports pitch.

Mohammed, a wide-eyed boy of 6, is one of his teammates. “My favourite thing is playing football,” he said from one of Space of Hope’s centres, whose locations are not revealed for fear that they become targets. “I miss the centre on Fri­days, when I am not there.”

“There is everything there and there are no bombs or planes,” Ayman said.

Unlike Raghad, they are not old enough to remember playing outside. They form part of Syria’s youngest generation and risk de­veloping a strong association be­tween open spaces and violence.

Aleppo has come under intense attack after a ceasefire negotiated by the United States and Russia col­lapsed. According to the Violations Documentation Centre, which monitors the death toll in Syria, 104 children have been killed in the city and the surrounding area in the last two weeks.

The charity Save the Children said that in Aleppo there are around 100,000 minors living un­der bombardment and siege. Over­all some 7.5 million Syrian children are affected by the war; 2 million are not in school.

Raghad is desperate to continue her education. She said she hopes to be a teacher herself.

“I wish I could sleep in the cen­tre,” she said. “When we are not here we just stay at home with our mother and play.”

She admits to being scared of the warplanes outside. Her 8-year-old sister Batool shows that the chil­dren know all too well the threat they pose. “I always see them in the air and we cannot play out­side,” she said.

Raghad said: “I am scared that the planes will bomb my school [and] I won’t be able to attend.” She admits to being a little scared of the warplanes outside but not all the children admit to the same fears. Space of Hope staff members said putting on a brave face is a com­mon reaction among them.

“When there are bombardments, they try to convince themselves that they are not scared,” said Ta­hany, 33, a Space of Hope teacher, “but they know their families are outside and they wonder if they are hurt. When planes come over they are obviously really scared.”

The children’s drawings show that violence has become all too normal for them. One picture shows military positions on a hill, with the valley below filled with horizontal bodies, scribbles of red pencil pooling around them.

“When I ask the children to draw what they want to draw, they draw blood and massacres,” said Tahany, who is a mother of two children un­der 2 years old. “Others draw them­selves running away from their homes — because of the stress of the war some children have prob­lems with their parents, so they draw themselves escaping.”

For now, Raghad, Batool, Mo­hammed and Ayman are as safe as children growing up in eastern Aleppo can be.

“As a teacher, mother and aunt, I wish I could see the children play­ing outside in the future,” Tahany said, “but at the moment it has reached a level where the children have no choice but to play under­ground.”