Syrian children bearing the brunt of war
Damascus - Their playground is a battlefield and their toys are plastic guns and sticks. Instead of acquiring an education at school, they are learning warfare through simulating battles. Almost five years of a most brutal conflict have deprived Syrian children of their childhood, familiarising them with violence, displacement and loss.
With a largely young population — an estimated 50% are under 18 — Syria’s children are obviously the most affected, suffering social, behavioural and physical disorders inflicted by the extreme violence that many have witnessed since anti-regime demonstrations started in March 2011 and developed into a bloody, multisided war.
Children were the first victims of the uprising triggered by the incarceration and torture of 15 students, who were arrested for writing anti-government graffiti in the southern city of Deraa.
“Syrian children are suffering from nervous and muscular pain as a result of the anxiety and stress they have been experiencing. This has driven many to become aggressive and stubborn and react in unjustified and illogical manner,” noted Caroline Mohsen, a psychology professor at Damascus University.
Psychic symptoms developed by trauma include uncontrolled urination among children, excessive and hysterical crying, early age smoking and sexual harassment. “Such behavioural troubles are known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Children are deeply affected by trauma, changing them drastically from normal and disciplined school-age children into something totally different,” Mohsen said.
“These children need many years of psychological monitoring and follow up in order to return to a normal life.”
While hundreds of thousands of children have experienced violence and trauma, very few groups offer psychological counselling and support. Among those that do are the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) and associations for the handicapped.
According to a UNICEF report, the war has affected 5.6 million children in Syria and 2 million others have fled as refugees.
Mona Kurdi, who is in charge of refugee affairs at SARC, contended that “all children in Syria have been affected directly or indirectly by the war from what they see and hear”.
“The effects of war are many,” she said. “There is the psychological consequence of loss and displacement, in addition to physical repercussions resulting from entering the labour market at an early age to help their families, when they should be focused on learning and playing. Many are scarred for life, both physically and psychologically.”
Nagham Maalouli, another SARC worker, pointed out that the group has identified 983 cases of traumatised children in refugee centres this year in Damascus. “The most vulnerable are the unaccompanied children who have either lost their parents or who have been lost by their parents. There are more than 36 such cases whom we could reach and register,” Maalouli said.
She said children who have suffered severe trauma are self-secluded, hyperactive or lack concentration. “In interactive games that we do with the children, many do not want to participate while others are too overwhelming. In some extremely severe cases, children aged between 12 and 13 have attempted suicide,” she said.
SARC has more than 196 volunteers working with traumatised children across Syria. They have handled 31,000 cases, Maalouli said, adding: “It is not only because they are young and cannot assimilate what is happening around them but because the extent of violence in Syria is unbearable even for adults.”
In addition to being traumatised by violence, children suffer from being uprooted from their cities, their homes and their schools. “Those who were displaced to [relatively] safe places have difficulty to integrate in a new setting or environment,” Mohsen noted, recalling the case of a 5-year-old displaced girl who would not stop crying until her father went back to their home in Idlib to fetch her doll.
Trauma is not limited to displaced children. Those living in so-called safe spots have been deprived of proper education since many school buildings have been turned into shelters for refugees.
“It is the child’s right to get an education, especially in the primary phase, which is when he can develop his personality and the knowledge he needs to have a better future,” said Mahmoud Mohamad, an education specialist.
“Every single child in Syria bears the brunt of the war, physically and morally,” he said. “Every family has lost one of its members and all have been affected by the deterioration of the local currency. Schools are not functioning properly and the children are stuck at home with no electricity for more than 15 hours a day.”
Fadia Semaan lives in the relatively safe Damascus neighbourhood of Kassa’a but she has been confining her three children to home.
“Risks of sporadic bombardment stopped us from allowing the children to play in the adjacent garden. They instead spend their time watching television whenever there is power, getting exposed to scenes of violence and killings that is reflected in their games and a growingly aggressive behaviour,” Semaan said.
“Scenes of mutilated bodies and severed heads have become familiar for Syrian adults and children alike. However, this has killed the naivety and spontaneity of childhood in many Syrian children,” Mohamad said.