/ 25 September 2012

Deep Read: The tortured children of Syria’s war

In the bleak
In the bleak

Ohood was sitting at her school desk when bullets started flying, inches above her head. Hassan saw severed heads and limbs lying in pools of sticky blood following the shelling of a funeral. Mohammed's skin and hair caught fire when a nearby car exploded. Kareem's next-door neighbour was killed by a shell as she nursed her baby. Moussa was kept in a prison cell alongside decomposing bodies. Eleven-year-old Mohamed writes poems about death and freedom.

In the bleak, windswept landscape of the rapidly swelling Za'atari camp and the overcrowded towns and villages of northern Jordan, child refugees from Syria are struggling to cope with the weight of their experiences during 18 months of bloodshed.

Some are haunted by the deaths of relatives, friends and neighbours. Some hear the sound of shelling and shooting constantly replaying in their heads. Many have seen their homes and communities turned to rubble. A few have been abused or tortured in detention. Some exhibit the physical scars of conflict. Almost all bear the psychological scars.

Children have flooded across the border from Syria in recent weeks, most in family groups but an increasing number making the difficult and dangerous journey without a parent or close relative. At Za'atari, where dust-caked tents stretch in long rows across a vast desert plain, children are up to two-thirds of the current population of 31 000 refugees.

"They are paying the highest price. We have seen a lot of psycho-social distress, behavioural problems," says Nadine Haddad of Save the Children, which is launching a campaign to draw attention to the plight of children caught up in the conflict. Adolescent boys tend towards aggression and even vandalism; younger children suffer nightmares and bed-wetting.

According to Michele Servadei of Unicef, the number of unaccompanied children arriving at Za'atari has increased to more than 20 a week. Some are completely alone; some have been sent by their parents to travel with neighbours or extended family members. "Most are boys between 14 and 18, but we are also now getting some girls – a symptom that things are getting worse, more families are being disrupted."

These children are part of a bigger picture. The UN says a total of more than 280 000 Syrian citizens have registered as refugees or are awaiting registration after fleeing to Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. But there are tens, maybe hundreds, of thousands more outside the camps and formal process of registration. Aid agencies, host countries and small communities are struggling to cope with the influx.

Ohood, a 14-year-old from east Deraa, made the journey to Jordan a month ago with her parents and seven of her siblings. The Free Syrian Army escorted the group to a point close to the Syrian border. "We had to walk in the dark for three hours, very slowly and quietly," she says while washing clothes in a bucket by a standpipe. "It was hard for the little children." They arrived in Jordan at 2am.

Repeated shelling
Her family left after repeated shelling of their neighbourhood. "One day we were at school, about 50 children in an Arabic lesson, sitting at our desks. There were clashes with the FSA, and they got mad and started shooting." Asked who "they" were, she says: "[President] Bashar's security.

"It was very frightening. All the children started running away, trying to escape. The shooting lasted about an hour." A few days later the family fled to Jordan.

Kareem, a 14-year-old with a cherubic face, mimics the sound of shells and gunfire while describing attacks on his and his neighbours' homes. "I could hear the rockets passing our house. Next door to us a woman was hit by shrapnel in her chest while nursing her baby. Three children also died. We stayed in the bedroom of our house, about 30 or more of us. The bombing went on all night."

He pulls up the leg of his jeans to show burn scars on his leg. "There were fires in the street, they were burning petroleum. I was running because I thought a tank was coming. I fell into a fire." Kareem was taken to a field hospital for basic treatment, but a year on his leg still causes pain. Despite his ready smile, he anxiously pulls at his lower lip while describing what happened.

Making constant gunfire noises, Kareem follows us through the rows of flapping tents to find Mohamed. An engaging 11-year-old writer of poetry, he arrived at Za'atari camp around a month ago, shortly before his mother gave birth to Mohamed's new brother. The baby, he says, is "skinny and doesn't nurse. We're all sick from the dust, we can't breathe normally."

Shortly before they left their home in Deraa province, a bullet whizzed in through a window and smashed through a cake his mother had made to break the Ramadan fast. Mohamed and his siblings usually hid in a cupboard when the shooting started.

One of Mohamed's poems is a tribute to a man called Nathem, "the first person to die in our town. He was on a protest, throwing rocks, and the soldiers started shooting." Another poem is, he says, about freedom. He recites the opening lines: "Homs is on fire, and all of Syria went to its aid."

It is hard to keep track of children in Za'atari despite the best efforts of aid agencies. Plans to use colour-coding and symbols to identify different parts of the camps have yet to be implemented and in any case the relentless sand and dust swiftly turn everything a uniform brown. Younger children frequently get lost; older ones sometimes sneak out past the camp's fences and armed guards, or simply disappear within the massive compound.

Unaccompanied minors
We spend an hour fruitlessly searching for Moussa, a 15-year-old who lives alone in the camp, one of more than 200 unaccompanied minors registered since Za'atari opened on 29 July. His mother and two brothers are also in Jordan but, as Syrians, they are not permitted to pay "bail" money to get Moussa out of the camp so he can join them. Moussa told Save the Children that he had fought with the FSA, and was imprisoned for 22 days after being captured by the Syrian military.

"I was tortured and I saw children dying. I've got scars on my feet, chest and back. There were hundreds of us in prison. I was in a big cell with other children. The youngest ones were nine or 10, they had been captured during protests. I was beaten up every day, and they used electricity too."

His interrogators wanted information about the FSA, he said. "But I never told them."

He said there were dead bodies in his cell. "They'd been there a long time, and they stank. They were decomposing, there were maggots."

A young man in the tent in which Moussa had been sleeping tells us the boy has gone to the "new camp", a vast area of expansion where tents are being erected in anticipation of thousands of arrivals over the coming weeks. Delivery trucks and bulldozers constantly churn up the sand into choking clouds, which are then fanned by the relentless wind.

The tents are mostly bare, with foam mattresses laid on groundsheets. Most families left their homes with minimal possessions; many of the children have only the clothes they are wearing. The temperature is already dropping after dark; soon it will be bitterly cold at night.

Aid workers say the camp inmates feel humiliated by their new living conditions. "Their passports are confiscated, they are forced to eat whatever they're given, they wash their clothes in a bucket, they have nothing to do all day. There is a lack of dignity. It's like being in prison," said one. Some refugees are even asking to return to Syria.

Save the Children, Unicef and other agencies have established "child friendly spaces", where children can play and take part in therapeutic activities, such as drawing and painting. "They express their feelings and what they've seen in different ways," says Haddad of Save the Children. "Some draw happy families. Some draw Syria. Some focus on horrific things. Each child has his or her way."

Burgeoning refugee crisis
Jordan's burgeoning refugee crisis does not end at the camp's perimeter fence. In addition to the 31 000 people in Za'atari camp, there are an estimated 140 000 Syrian refugees living in towns and villages in northern Jordan. Many extended families stretch across both sides of the border, and some refugees are crowding in with relatives. Others are renting apartments in cities such as Ramthe, Mafraq and Irbid.

Hassan, a 14-year-old from Zaynab, near Damascus, and a further eight members of his family have squashed into a relative's house in Mafraq a few weeks after fleeing Syria in the aftermath of what he describes as "a massacre in our town".

According to his account, Syrian helicopters fired rockets at a night-time funeral for an FSA fighter. "There were about 5 000 people. I was at the edge of the funeral." The mourners were making a lot of noise, he says, but when the rockets hit, "there was no sound".

"There were bodies, and pieces of bodies, everywhere. Everyone was looking for relatives. Everyone was scared because there were helicopters still in the sky. I saw heads 20 metres away from the blast. I saw arms and legs that had been cut from bodies. There was lots of blood everywhere. Before I go to sleep at night, I always remember what happened that day."

Hassan's uncle and cousin were among the dead. "We found their bodies in the mosque." He adds: "Everybody from young to old hates Bashar."

He has not been able to start school in Jordan, although he is trying to register. Local schools are struggling with the refugee influx and aid agencies are trying to help with prefabricated classrooms and textbooks. They are also encouraging teachers among the refugee population to volunteer to work. In Za'atari camp alone, there are up to 10 000 school-age children – the equivalent of 10 average-sized secondary schools in the UK.

"Many children have lost months or even years of schooling," says Servadei of Unicef. School is not only essential from an educational point of view but also to provide children with a sense of routine and occupation. Boredom is one of the biggest problems for refugee children.

'A lot of children have been killed'
Seventeen-year-old Mohammed, now living with a relative in Irbid, would also like to restart his education. "I want to register but they have told me the schools are full. It's boring. I just go for walks around the town."

Before leaving Syria, Mohammed was involved in the FSA. "We used to help them, but I was not fighting myself. We would scout roads and refill ammo. There were younger children than me going out with the FSA, as young as 10."

Youngsters, he says, were involved in the uprising from the beginning. A protest in his home town of Deraa, initiated by schoolchildren, led to the arrest of about 50. "They were taken to jail. They had their fingernails pulled out, they were beaten with sticks. Some lost their minds." Some of the children were as young as six, he says.

"A lot of children have been killed. My friends, my cousins."

Mohammed intends to go back to Syria to join the fight, but first needs treatment for burns on his face and body, which have left him extensive scarring and pain. "I was standing next to a car which was hit. There was a big fire. I was burned all over. It was like a dream. Then I passed out."

He crossed to Jordan alone around six weeks ago, going first to Za'atari camp and now staying with a relative in Irbid. His family is still in Deraa. "I miss them. I can't stay here while my family might be killed. I want to go back. I'm no longer afraid of anything." – © Guardian News and Media 2012