For Aleppo’s children, playgrounds are underground
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.”