Children caught up in fighting on both sides of Syrian conflict
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Children and teenagers were front-row witnesses of the Syrian uprising from the very beginning, as participants both in protests against the regime as well as protests in support of president Bashar Al-Assad. But as civil war has engulfed the country, they have become actors in the conflict in their own right. Three local activists tell us how the war has ensnared these youths.
Photo showing a boy who joined up with Ahrar al-Sham, a Syrian jihadist group. The photo is a screenshot from one of the organisation’s propaganda videos.
Children and teenagers have been front-row witnesses of the Syrian uprising from the very beginning, as participants in both pro and anti-Assad protests. But as civil war has engulfed the country, they have become actors in the conflict in their own right. Three local activists tell us how the war has ensnared these youths.
The Syrian rebellion started in March 2011 after schoolchildren were arrested and tortured for drawing revolutionary graffiti. In the next several weeks, many people took their children to peaceful protests. Videos show many children on their parents’ shoulders, holding signs and chanting slogans along with their elders.
But the regime’s brutal repression of these protests only worsened, and the conflict became increasingly militarised, claiming the lives of tens of thousands of people. Youths have become more and more involved in the fighting and can be seen bearing arms in many videos shared on various social media sites, some of which are clearly propaganda.
Examples abound. A video from early 2012 features a 15-year old boy fighting in the Hama region. He had recently lost both his father and brother.
The screenshot above is taken from a video in which a boy who looks to be at most 10 years old was filmed on the front lines in Deir Ezzor, alongside a man who introduced himself as his father. But such cases are rare. Most underage fighters are teenagers.
In a report published on November 29, 2013, Human Rights Watch condemned armed groups’ use of children in the conflict. The report claims that rebels use children as young as 14 to keep watch as well as carry weapons and food, and that 16-year-olds have borne arms and actively participated in combat.
In this screenshot taken from a video, fighters from the Tawhid brigade in Aleppo talk to a boy who had allegedly been sent by the Syrian authorities to spy on them.
Other children have been used for propaganda. For instance, the boy in the screenshot above, from a village near the border with Turkey, was filmed praising Al-Qaeda as well as the destruction of the Twin Towers in New York City. He also called for the murder of Shiites [a branch of Islam to which Al-Assad belongs] in several videos.
Some minors have been working as nurses to care for the injured in field hospitals. The spokesman for UNICEF in Jordan, Alexis Masciarelli, told FRANCE 24 that some of the refugee children his organisation helps, who had fled Syria, had worked as first-aid responders there.
“Some have been pressured to take part in attacks”
Abou Salah is a Syrian activist who lives in Aleppo. He regularly films videos for Aleppo News Network, an opposition network.
The youngest fighter that I have seen to date was 16 years old and did not take part in combat. His role was to help other fighters by reloading their AK-47s or by carrying messages between different lookouts along the demarcation lines in the Mayssaloun neighborhood, which I have been covering since the beginning of the conflict.
On the other side, the Syrian army has been sending children into rebel-held zones to inspect their defense systems, count the number of fighters in the streets, see how well-armed they are, etc. I have seen children approach the demarcation lines. In general, they are street children or even Nawads [a term for nomadic people who live at the edges of society in Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.] These children were pretending to be going through the trash in search of items to sell. But their aim was to place electronic chips in the areas near the rebel command. [The alleged goal being to help the regime’s air force target these areas during take part in in or help during attacks.
In the video from which this screenshot was taken, the commander of the Free Syrian Army can be seen questioning a boy in Damascus. The boy explains that he was tortured and handcuffed to the steering wheel of a booby-trapped car that he says he was supposed to drive into a rebel zone in Tadamun, Damascus.
“This generation of Syrians is being sacrificed”
Mourad al-Chami is the spokesperson for the local coordination committee of Ghouta al-Gharbiya, located in Damascus’ western suburbs.
The war has taken over our lives, so much so that we find ourselves in terrible situations where we cannot prevent children from taking part in the conflict. These are the very children who participated in the protests with their parents two years ago, who have now become warriors. Many of them have also become orphans.
I have seen 14- and 15-year olds trying their hardest to help the rebels. There are perplexing cases, like that is a 13-year old girl who lost her entire family and her house in the fighting in Daraya [a Damascus neighbourhood] and who refuses to leave for a safer place [the Daraya area has been completely destroyed]. We have tried to get her out several times, but each time she goes back with even more determination to help the rebels who are stationed there. It’s her way of staying true to her family.
“A 16-year old orphan became the leader of a unit, commanding several men”
In this same neighborhood, a 16-year old orphan became the leader of a unit. He commands several men. These situations are simply inexplicable; they can only occur during wartime. This boy, like so many others, should be in school. But all the schools in the rebel zones have been targeted and destroyed by the regime.
These children believe it is their duty to share in their parents’ suffering. The concept of staying idle in refugee camps is unbearable to them. In fact, many run away from the camps to reunite with fathers or uncles who have stayed behind to fight.
The rebels’ propaganda, as well as that of the regime, play a role here. Calls to arm and hateful discourse have become increasingly common, and children are even more vulnerable to it than adults.
Even if children’s involvement in the conflict remains limited in scope, we have asked the Free Syrian Army rebel fighters in our area to forbid them from joining their ranks. They agreed, and provided us with detailed lists of the names, ages, and birthplaces of children who had fought with them in the past. Together with other activists, and in coordination with the Free Syrian Army, we have been organising awareness-raising campaigns. We have been trying to create welcome centers and makeshift schools in more or less stable areas. In contrast, jihadist units are more reticent to share this kind of information with us, which makes things substantially more difficult for us.
Khan, 16 years old, joined the ranks of a jihadist group in Aleppo.
On the regime’s side, we have been seeing the same problem. There is virulent hate-filled rhetoric and a militarization of the Alawi youth that will most certainly have very harmful long-term effects. This entire generation of Syrians, of all religions, is being sacrificed.
Post written with FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr (@SimNasr).