Esma, 7, and a friend peer out of a tent in Lebanon’s Bekaa valley that has been her home since her family fled Syria last year. Photograph: Sam Tarling/Save the Children
Two million Syrian children are victims of war, charity says in report revealing third of children have been hit, kicked or shot at
The catastrophic war in Syria has caused a “collapse in childhood”, Save the Children warned on Wednesday. It cited research revealing that one in three children reported having been hit, kicked or shot at, as fighting between rebels and soldiers loyal to President Bashar al-Assad engulfed the entire country.
The report, Childhood Under Fire, was launched to coincide with the second anniversary of Syria’s anti-Assad uprising. It paints a grim picture of how children have been targeted in the war and shows that many are struggling to find enough to eat. Others are living in barns, parks or caves. Few are able to go to school. Teachers have fled and school buildings are under fire. Sanitation systems have been damaged, forcing some youngsters to defecate in the street.
The research, by Bahcesehir University in Turkey, includes harrowing testimony from refugee children, some of whom have seen their parents arrested, beaten and killed by regime forces.
One, Nidal, said: “They shot at us near my foot so I jumped. I was scared, very scared, and my friend too. We were surrounded by walls. So we jumped over walls and ran away.” Nidal recalled how his father was sleeping, and his mother doing chores, when government soldiers burst in.
“They entered and beat my father. They started to beat him with sticks. All of them were beating him. One of them was kicking him. I was hiding in the room so they wouldn’t take me.”
A mother, Um Ali, who escaped across the border to Turkey, added: “We couldn’t leave our house at all. The snipers would shoot us straight away. They were on the roofs. We could see children falling dead. This is why we fled, because of the heavy shelling.” She added: “The children were terrified.”
The report suggests the conflict has had a disastrous effect on youngsters. It says armed militias are using boys as porters, runners and human shields, and bringing them to the frontline. Girls are being married off by their parents early to “protect” them from the widely perceived threat of sexual violence. “I know that men are hunting women. We could not protect her, so we had to marry her. We needed her to have a protector,” Um Ali explained.
A universal problem faced by children and their parents in Syria has been hunger, with malnutrition growing. The military has targeted bakeries in many opposition-controlled areas. The price of basic foodstuffs, fuel and cooking oil has rocketed by up to 500%. Asked why he fled his home Rami, a father of three, replied: “Hunger. Food. There was none. No bread. If I stayed my children would have died from hunger.”
“For millions of Syrian children, the innocence of childhood has been replaced by the cruel realities of trying to survive this vicious war,” said Justin Forsyth, Save the Children’s chief executive.
“Many are now living rough, struggling to find enough to eat, without the right medicine if they become sick or injured. As society has broken down, in the worst cases, hunger, homelessness and terror have replaced school for some of these young people. We cannot allow this to continue unchecked. The lives of too many children are at stake.”
The fighting has also had profound emotional consequences for many youngsters. Three-quarters had experienced the death of a relative or close friend. Others have been separated from fathers and other members of their families.
The findings follow a report on Tuesday by Unicef, which said that the future of a whole generation of Syrian children was “disappearing under the rubble”. It said 70,000 Syrians had been killed and one in five schools destroyed. In the divided northern city Aleppo – a battleground since last July – only 6% of children went to school.
Syrian troops shelled outlying rebel-controlled areas of Damascus using multiple rocket launchers on Tuesday, activists said. There were further clashes near Aleppo’s airport and military bases in Syria’s north, they added.
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