REYHANLI, Turkey – A mother from eastern Syria kept a newborn and a toddler suckling at her breasts for the better part of 48 hours. Their mother’s bosom was the infants’ only solace as the family of six waited in the rocky, woody terrain held by opposition rebels. It was the last step of their journey before smugglers would take them across the border into Turkey.
It was a scorching summer day in 2015. Taking advantage of a momentary distraction among the border guards, they finally made it.
But the situation along the Turkey-Syria border has changed dramatically in the past few months. Stepped-up border control and the refugees’ worsening economic straits have made crossings more challenging. Civilians who reached the Turkish side of the border in January 2016 told Refugees Deeply that several people have been killed trying to cross illegally. Deaths in this no man’s land go largely unreported.
Like many newborns in Syria (and those in neighboring Turkey), the baby had no identity papers. Her older brothers and sisters had not been to school in years. The impoverished family had little choice but to remain in Deir Ezzor, their native province, after the so-called Islamic State took control of most of it in July 2014. It was safer than opposition-held areas, which were under constant bombardment by regime forces.
One day the mother saw one of the older siblings, who had seen dead bodies on the streets, playing a game of “beheading” his infant brother with a knife. She realized they had to leave. The mother, who wished to remain anonymous, explained that despite not allowing her children to attend the Islamic State’s school, it became impossible for her to shield them from daily dangers and psychological damage.
According to Save the Children’s latest report, Childhood Under Siege, at least 250,000 children are living under siege in areas of Syria that “have effectively been turned into open-air prisons.”
“Childhood has been the greatest casualty of the Syrian conflict,” says the organization, while detailing the range of traumatic experiences that an average five-year-old living in the country would have experienced since being born amid the conflict.
Many Syrian parents on both sides of the border cite the future and safety of their children as the driving reason for the choices they have made – whether rising up against a “dictatorship,” seeking stability while remaining in Syria, fleeing to a safer country or a combination of these actions.
Syrian children have paid a particularly heavy price – starting with the 15 adolescent boys from the southern city of Daraa whom government forces tortured for spray-painting anti-regime graffiti and going all the way through to the thousands missing since entering Europe. Their plight continues to worsen as Syria enters a sixth year of conflict.
Children have also been used as political tools by all sides. The barrage of photos and video footage from opposition areas showing children bleeding and screaming in makeshift “hospitals” and tiny, mangled bodies being pulled from barrel-bombed rubble have raised accusations of exploiting minors or harming their dignity. Others counter that this is the truth of the matter and that it must be shown.
On the other hand, direct attacks by armed groups and deliberate targeting of schools has prompted the flight of entire families from conflict-riddled areas of the country.
More than 4.7 million of Syria’s 23 million inhabitants have sought refuge abroad, according to UNHCR. Roughly 2.7 million are in Turkey. More than 50 per cent of the overall Syrian registered refugee population in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt – according to a demographic breakdown based on available data from the above countries – is under 18. Many remain unregistered and hence invisible to the humanitarian system.
A majority of these minors fled due to atrocities in the Syrian conflict, with regime attacks killing by far the largest number of civilians. The warring sides and their affiliated groups have evolved and diversified over the past two years, leading to increased attacks from multiple sources and leaving few safe areas for civilians to hide.
The major parties to the conflict since the peaceful uprising in 2011 are the Syrian regime and its allied foreign militias against fractious opposition groups – including military-defector-heavy Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades and better-funded Islamist groups often working side-by-side – and IS. Russia’s entry into the war on the side of the regime on September 30, 2015, has meanwhile exacerbated the refugee crisis.
Many teenage boys from regime areas who spoke to Refugees Deeply in southern Turkey said that they had left to avoid being picked up at a checkpoint and forced to fight indefinitely. The regime has for several years now reportedly refused to discharge recruits even after their mandatory service is over.
Opposition ranks have also made use of underage fighters, especially where schools are not operating. At the same time, children in opposition-held territory are especially vulnerable to attacks when at school. Many of the few remaining schools have moved underground to avoid becoming targets. Indiscriminate regime barrel bombing of residential areas has also led to increased flight of families.
Forced military recruitment of minors is common in IS territory, as well. There have been several reports of IS killing adolescent boys for refusing to fight and the group is notorious for selling young girls to fighters as ‘’wives’’ or sex slaves. Children have also become collateral victims during international airstrikes against IS targets.
Yakzan Shishakly, co-founder of the Maram Foundation and director of the Olive Tree Camp in Atmeh, the largest camp for internally displaced people in Syria, is acutely aware of the general climate of frustration and hopelessness inside the country that is forcing internally displaced communities to flee across the border.
‘’We always wait till it’s too late and then we start thinking how we can help. Everybody saw this coming and that our children would be homeless, schoolless or in many cases parentless,” he said.
Conditions of instability and uncertainty have followed refugee children across the border. The large numbers of refugees arriving on European soil have often been reduced to “masses.” With the exception of the now iconic image of the toddler Aylan Kurdi, face down and lifeless on a Turkish shore, most stories of individual children have not caught the public eye. Even in Aylan’s case, much was made of his being Kurdish and fleeing from IS, despite the fact that his family had been living in Damascus before the war and had fled to Kobane only after his father had been tortured by the regime. Media, governments and even humanitarian agencies have used children and their suffering to serve specific political positions.
Meanwhile, children who manage to reach the shores of Europe continue to struggle for normal lives, especially for routine and a sense of community.
“I used to pretend it was a game, when the bombs were falling, instead of crying,” explained eight-year-old Rusul who arrived in Greece in 2014 by sea. The sobering effect of what she witnessed at such a tender age is evident on her face.
“After what I saw in my home, the journey by sea was nothing. I was not afraid,” she said. Her four younger cousins nod in agreement. These children have found solace in each other but alienation from mainstream society has meant lack of access to schooling and new friends. They suffer from frequent nightmares and often feel dejected. They are among the many families stranded in Athens due to running out of money for the onward journey to northern Europe.
In mid-2015, a report by psychologists at reception centers in Germany revealed that 20 percent of Syrian children suffered from high levels of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that Germany was not equipped to help them. The rates of trauma and the number of children needing help increased over the year with new arrivals continuing at a relentless pace into 2016.
Psychosocial support is a farfetched idea for those, like Rusul, who do not even have access to local schools or books and live in a bug-infested home in an impoverished neighborhood of Athens.
Children like Rusul, arriving by sea to Europe, need particular attention. Their flow has been steady and gradually increasing over the past year. Europol, EU’s intelligence agency, has warned that the 10,000 or more missing children could have been easily be forced into “sex trafficking or the slave trade.” Yet such reports have not prompted concerted efforts by European governments and humanitarian agencies to protect refugee children.
Meanwhile, aid for children in countries neighboring Syria has dwindled over the years. Sandy Maroun, at Save the Children Lebanon, explained that several years into the conflict and with no respite in sight, they now face “donor fatigue” coupled with the fact that “refugees have exhausted their savings … leading to the deterioration of the situation of children,” she said.
Due to impoverishment, decreased aid and lack of protection, underage female refugees are even more susceptible to abuse. Adolescent girls in refugee camps continue to be “sold” into marriage as families get more desperate for money. Women and girls who suffer sexual violence often do not report abuse because of social stigmas. The International Rescue Committee has repeatedly reported that female Syrian refugees, especially minors, are vulnerable to sexual abuse on both sides of the border.
This introduction to the Lost Childhoods of Syria will be followed by a series of accounts of individual children displaced by conflict – on the nature of attacks in their communities that prompted their flight, their current situations as refugees and their future aspirations as they search for new beginnings.
Top image: Children play at an abandoned mosque in Arsal, Lebanon. (Preethi Nallu)