In Syria, which has seen so much death that monitors have stopped counting, it is perhaps children who are bearing the greatest suffering.
A new UN report on the situation of children in Syria reveals that in these three years of civil war, children have been subjected to the same horrors of war as their parents.
Over the course of the war, children have been tortured, maimed, and sexually abused, according to the report. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has termed it the “unspeakable suffering” experienced by children.
Estimates are that at least 10,000 children have been killed in Syria’s civil war so far, and an estimated 5 million have been affected.
By early October 2013, approximately 3 million children were displaced and in need of assistance inside Syria and an estimated 1.1 million children had fled with their families.
No Place to Hide
From the very first moments of the Syrian uprising—which is an attempt to overthrow the rule of Bashar al-Assad, whose family has been in power since 1971—children have been caught in between.
It was the alleged torture of the children who had painted anti-government slogans on public buildings in March 2011 that started the popular uprising, which has since escalated into a full-scale civil war.
The U.N. report details a trend of indiscriminate killings by both the Assad regime, and the rebel fighters.
The information is based on interviews conducted by the U.N., which include numerous accounts from Syrian refugees, victims, and witnesses. The report’s authors write that the evidence speaks to “overall trends,” and is “indicative only of the scale, the scope, and the gravity of grave violations committed against children in Syria.”
In one anecdote, a 16-year-old boy who had joined an anti-government protest in one of the key cities for the uprising, the city of Homs, was shot in the back by a government sniper, leaving him paralyzed.
In another, at least 18 children in Alawite villages were killed or maimed either in their homes or while trying to flee with family members.
But even if children didn’t seek to get close to the uprising—the outcome of which will define the future for the Syrian nation—the war would soon find them.
Schools throughout Syria have been used by both government troops and rebel fighters as barracks or detention centers. Snipers have been positioned in schools as children were attending their classes, according to the report.
As of October 2013, more than 3,000 of Syria’s 22,000 schools had been destroyed or damaged, according to government figures cited in the report.
While the abuses and killing of children in the first two years of the conflict are primarily attributed to government forces, as Syrian rebels gained more ground, abuses attributed to them also increased.
With access to heavier weapons, Syrian rebel fighters have started to engage in some of the same mass killings as government forces. Rebel fighters have also actively recruited child soldiers to join their ranks, either for combat operations or supporting roles.
A new trend seen since mid-2013 shows that in areas now controlled by fighters allied with extremist Islamist groups, schools are being used as bases to indoctrinate children to fight for their “jihad,” or holy war.
The abduction of children has become a prominent feature of the conflict. Children have proven to be a valuable trade asset for pro-government militias and armed opposition groups.
Reports suggest that abducted children are exchanged with the other side in return for the release of prisoners or for ransoms. In other cases, children would be abducted in order to pressure their families to support the abductor’s political side.
In one such a case a 15-year-old girl was abducted while fleeing violence in the city of Abu Al Zuhur with her family. The family had to turn over their money and car to get their child back.