Uprising in Syria

08.23.12

Bashar Al-Assad’s War on Syria’s Children

Scarred by fighting and violence, a generation of traumatized kids is paying the real price of the conflict. By Mike Giglio.

“We have an injured guy, and the situation is very dangerous: His hand is amputated and his leg is also amputated,” says the kneeling eight-year-old boy, as he fastens a clothespin to the sleeve of his younger brother’s shirt. “Now we bring him to Turkey.”

It’s just a game but one that mirrors his reality all too closely. For the last two weeks, Hakam Balika, 8, and his three brothers have been living in Antakya, a city near the Syrian border in Turkey, refugees from a war that doesn’t seem to have an end in sight. The boys fled here with their parents after their mother was badly wounded during government shelling of their hometown of Homs. She lost her left arm and much of her left waist and thigh, and doctors don’t know if she’ll walk again. After she was stabilized at a rebel-run field hospital in Homs, her husband drugged her and the boys so they’d stay quiet, then smuggled them to Turkey, a harrowing trip that involved traveling underground through drainage pipes. Now he keeps constant vigil over his wife at a hospital in Antakya.

The boy’s injuries are less visible but no less real.

Traumatized by what they’ve seen and experienced, the boys can be a terror. They went through four homes in Antakya in about as many days until a Syrian woman named Huda Edrees volunteered. Edrees was a psychologist in Damascus before fleeing last year. From her sixth-floor apartment, she plays harried mother to the boys, whom she has found to be deeply scarred. “They’re very violent to each other. They destroy their toys, they don’t play with them. They event act violently toward their food, like they’re letting their anger out,” Edrees says, smoking a cigarette on her couch as the boys fight, shout, and scramble around the room, hanging on her neck and climbing over her lap.

“When they sleep,” Edrees says, “they don’t sleep much. They wake up to nightmares.”

The nightmares are of tanks and heavy weapons. People shoot at the boys—or sometimes, it’s the boys who have the guns. Iyad won’t sleep unless Edrees holds him. He recently dreamed that he was shooting at his dad.

The boys’ father and two uncles were with the rebels in Homs, and the house filled with talk of fighting and intrigue. Gunshots and bomb blasts sounded in the city for months on end. Eventually the violence reached the family when an uncle was killed with a sniper’s bullet to the head. “We took him and we gave him a bath, and then my uncle’s son started to hit his head against the walls and the windows, and he broke all the windows,” Abdul Alim recalls, pulling at his jean shorts as his legs dangle from the couch.

Just before his mother was hurt, Hakam, the eldest, went to the second floor of the school where the family was taking shelter, and his foot was pierced by shrapnel from a different blast. He and his father had left for the hospital when the shell that tore through his mother arrived. His brothers were with her at home. Abdul Alim splashed her with water—“she told me she was thirsty,” he remembers—and she pawed through the rubble to get the children outside. “The fear inside them is very intense,” Edrees says of the boys.

Many of the 19,000 people who are estimated by an activist group to have died in the Syrian conflict have been civilians, with regular neighborhoods often bearing the brunt of regime retaliation when rebel forces come to town. Kids are witnesses to the violence, and the victims of it too. Images of dead children sometimes fuel the anti-Assad media campaigns. “Gift from Assad to child in Aleppo,” read one message on a Skype group where opposition activists post information for journalists Tuesday night. It was accompanied by a Facebook link to a grisly photo of a boy with a large hole in his chest, along with an emoticon of a frowning face dripping with tears.

The nightmares are of tanks and heavy weapons. People shoot at the boys—or sometimes, it’s the boys who have the guns.

The fighting has displaced more that 1.5 million people inside Syria and sent tens of thousands more fleeing across its borders. In Turkey, which hosts the largest number of Syrian refugees, the number is 70,000 and climbing fast. On Tuesday, more than 2,500 had arrived in a span of 24 hours. About half of the refugees are children, many of whom are likely to have deep psychological scars, notes Carol Batchelor, head of the Turkey office for the U.N. refugee agency.

The Turkish government has included measures for psychological care. But the issue can get overlooked in the rush to address more obvious needs like food and medical help. In such situations, meanwhile, children with mental trauma can have a hard time being heard. “Children sometimes find it difficult to have a voice when adults are in the room,” Batchelor says.

At her practice in Damascus, Edrees mainly treated depressed adults. But since the boys arrived she has tried to help them cope. They play a game called “neighborhood,” in which each boy sets up a make-believe house and Edrees stops by to talk.

Sometimes the boys ask to play rebel or field hospital instead. As rebels, they kill police and shabiha, the hated pro-Assad thugs. When they play field hospital, they often reenact what happened to their mom. “Calm down. You will get better soon. They’re going to give you a new hand, a new waist,” the boys say.

When the recent game is through, Hakam picks up his foot to show a two-inch shrapnel scar. “My dad told me to go to the second floor and bring him a lighter and cigarettes,” he says. “When I went to the second floor, there was a rocket. I shouted, ‘Dad!’ And my mom went to get me. And she held me and she ran.”

Hakam’s father took him to the field hospital, where he was relieved to find that the boy’s injury was small. “An injured woman came in,” Hakam remembers. “And the woman was my mother. They gave her two bags of blood.”

The boys have a good idea of what happened, Edrees says. “The thing is, they don’t know why. This is a big question mark. They don’t know why.”

Hakam volunteers an answer from his seat on the couch.

“My mother was injured because of me,” he says. “Because I went to the second floor, and she went to get me.”

Someone assures him it’s not his fault.

“Yes, because of me,” he says. “Because of me and because of Bashar.”