Every now and then a story is revealed, a picture or a video clip of a Syrian child is shared, revealing some kind of atrocity, rape, or torture. In every picture or story there is something that symbolizes or represents the experience that the whole Syrian people are living, although more intensely through children. Once again, stations of history are narrated through stories, pictures and videos from the Syrian childhood tragedy.
Here is an attempt to chart the course for the humiliation and shattering of Syrian childhood during the last decade.
Childhood Draws Change
In February 2011, a story from Daraa circulated about children who imitated what they saw the Tunisian children doing on their television screens, they drew pictures on the wall of their schools symbolizing freedom, and wrote expressions demanding regime change. Their story then spread to change the country’s history, as security forces arrested 15 children (according to opposition activists), for their writing of slogans calling for freedom and demanding regime change. They were beaten and their fingernails were pulled out.
Security officials refused to contact the Daraa families regarding their children’s detention. History in Syria has moved with children’s drawings of freedom, but in which direction? Due to the way the ruling regime handled this story, four years later, in 2015, UNICEF and Child Protection reported, in their report named “Small Hands, Heavy Burden”, that four in five Syrian children suffer from poverty.
Childhood Commencing the Stage of Torture
Less than two months after the story of Daraa children had spread, the details of a new story emerged; the pictures of the child’s body (Hamza Al-Khatib, 13), who was tortured to death, appeared publicly. The story was that he was arrested at a Syrian security barrier near the Saida houses in Houran in April of 2011. After some time, his body was delivered to his family, and there were marks of torture and gunshots on it. He was shot in the right arm, in the left arm, in the chest, his neck was broken, his body was mutilated and his reproductive organ was cut off, according to narrators. Many people revolted. Social media roared: “We are all Hamza Alkateeb”, in reference to the torture of detainees in Syria. Hillary Clinton said that the child’s story is “a turning point in the Syrian uprising, a symbol of many Syrians, and a total loss of hope for the success of any efforts to reach out to the Syrian government, which does not listen to its people.” Still, nothing has happened regarding torture. In August 2015, the Syrian Network for Human Rights documented nearly 80 deaths under torture, committed by fighting factions on Syrian territory.
Childhood is a Victim of the Media War
There were different narrations of the story of the girl Zeinab Al-Hasani. Opposition media said the child was detained by Syrian security forces because of the participation of her brother Muhammad in some demonstrations. They said she had died under torture, since when her mother received her body, there were clear marks of torture and gunshot wounds that appeared on her body. This would be the story of the first female detainee to die under torture at that time. Days later however, Syrian state television aired an interview with Zeinab, declaring that she was fleeing from her family’s home and had resorted to the security forces voluntarily. In 2013, the very alive Zeinab re-appeared in Jordan, explaining that she had been arrested indeed, that she had been forced to film the interview, and was told what to say. It was a story of a child that had been swinging between life and death, and had been exploited by the warring media. Thus, in the era when the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified by the Syrian Arab Republic, several Syrian parties manipulated the fate of a child, who witnessed both life and death before turning 18.
Children with Sectarian Awareness
Since the protests began in 2011, humanitarian organizations working on children’s rights have warned Syrian activists and demonstrators of the danger of children participating in demonstrations and holding banners with political slogans that children cannot be aware of. The people of the revolting neighborhoods justified this, saying that the whole neighborhood, with its families and children, is involved in organizing the demonstration, from media commentary to chanting, to cleaning up: “It is part of the group activity of the neighborhood,” says one parent.
But it was not until children appeared carrying signs with sectarian slogans, that the opposition media tried to set things right by blocking the pictures of the children. In one of these images, a three-year-old child was seen holding a sign with the following phrase: “Proudly, yes, we are Sunni Muslims and that is why Syrian children are killed, burned, and slaughtered.” How does a child realize what “Sunni” means? It requires an understanding of history, and how does childhood recognize that the conflict is sectarian? What is sectarianism in essence? Then, there was a video clip of a girl in Baba Amr district who was giving a speech during a demonstration, and in front of the camera and the crowds, she hailed Sheikh Al-Ar’our, one of the most extremist sectarian preachers.
One Child Sings About Slaughter and the Other Threatens Destruction
In 2013, one of the most alarming videos regarding the situation of childhood in Syria during the last few years went viral in the media. The video showed a child, from the city of Binnish in Idlib, who was carried on the shoulders of the members of the “Al-Nusra” organization. The child was singing loudly, threatening the neighboring Shiite villages with slaughter, while using his arm to gesture the act of slaughtering:
“We’re the Nasriyah police … be patient, Alawites
We’ll slaughter you … without agreement
They called me a terrorist .. I said it was an honor”
This is how the child boasted being a terrorist in his song. Then he Saluted al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In his song, he admitted responsibility for the World Trade Center bombings that took place in New York on September 11, 2001, where about 3,000 people were killed:
“Bin Laden is our leader … he terrorized America
We destroyed America … with a civilian plane
The Trade Tower turned into … a pile of rubble
We’re the Nasriyah police … be patient, Alawites.”
After less than two months of the release of this song, another video of a different child went viral. The video was said to be filmed in the area of Al-Mazzeh 86 in Damascus. It was filmed in a room where no one appeared except for the child, and there were voices in the background repeating “fourth division”. They, apparently, meant the fourth division of the Syrian army. The child threatened the revolutionists, and the lyrics of the song included threats of the worst sexual violation, rape, and the destruction of the rebellious Syrian areas with their names mentioned one after another using the same rhyme scheme with the names such as: Darayya, Qudsaya, and Zamalka.
In the two horrific incidents, children were exploited to perform songs that call for concepts like: slaughter, murder, bombing, sexual violence, destruction and killing of people, and claiming responsibility for global terrorist acts. This was a sign sent by children about the transformation of the Syrian conflict into a more severe level of sectarianism and violence.
Until the end of 2016, the researcher Kim Singupta estimated the number of children who were recruited into the ranks of ISIS at about 50 thousands. Besides, in his research titled “Children Under the Shadow of the Islamic State Between the Jihadi Education and the Recruitment”, the researcher Wassim al-Sharqi wrote: “Children in the areas seized by that organization are considered one of the main resources that enables the organization to continue fighting”. Thus, photos and videos showing the children’s training camps for fighting and using several kinds of arms have proliferated. Our eyes became accustomed to seeing armed children as a part of our collective culture.
Within “The Fifth Generation”, a documentary, an interview with a child Hassan (16) who was liberated from the hands of the organization after he learnt the curricula of training the cubs of the caliphate was broadcasted. The child exposed the techniques used by “ISIS” to send children first to the frontlines. He also told the interviewer what he experienced in terms of murder, playing with dead bodies as if they were toys. The child was overwhelmed when he was describing what he had lived. He couldn’t tell whether he was a murderer or a fighter. At the end of the filmed interview, it turned out that the child was still nostalgic towards the Jihadi songs that he used to listen to when he was under the rule of the organization. He begged the director of the documentary not to play any of them in the video, because they would revive his longing for fighting and weapons.
Displaced and Migrated Children
There are many photos and videos of children experiencing displacement and immigration, like most of the Syrian society. The first one, published by Reuters, shows a child sleeping in a suitcase and carried inside it all along the way. The second, was a video filmed in Europe in September 2015. Groups of Syrian refugees were crossing the Hungarian borders, when a Hungarian female journalist stopped a Syrian father (Osama al-Ghadab) holding his child in his arms and escaping from the police. Although the scene was incomprehensible, or lacked clarity, our eyes still saw another child falling on the ground after he was kicked by a female reporter who works for the TV of the right-wing “Gopik” party, that opposes the Hungarian immigration laws. It was a right-wing European kick to the Refugee Syrian childhood. At the time, the United Nations announced that more than four million Syrians, or about one sixth of the population, had headed abroad to escape the conflict in their country.
Earlier, in the morning of September 2, 2015, the world woke up to a released video documenting the drowning of the Syrian child Aylan Kurdi, lying face down on the beach with his little body swollen because of the seawater he had swallowed. The toddler’s family was trying to flee across the sea, from Turkey to Greece. For an hour, Syrian refugees were struggling in the boat trying to tame the waves to stay alive and reach the Greek island of Kos. A venture that tragically ended when the child slipped out of his father’s hands. A few hours later, his dead body was lying face down on the sandy beach of Bodrum, the Turkish peninsula. It is worth mentioning that twelve Syrian refugees of the ill-fated boat had drowned, including Aylan (3 years) and his older brother Ghalib (5 years).
Aylan’s photo spread as an icon of the victims of the deadly Syrian immigration across the sea. It promoted international responses, as the Swedish Prime Minister and the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan were apparently so deeply moved that their eyes swelled up with tears. The dormant European politics woke up to the danger of their ways. The Egyptian Dar Al Iftaa extended its condolences for the tragic death on its Facebook page, posting his photo with a caption that read, “May Allah lift the hardship of our nation.” Moreover, in the September edition of “Charlie Hebdo”, the satirical magazine, the editors made use of Aylan’s photo in a caricature with a caption that read “Welcome Refugees,” criticizing the European Union’s policy towards refugees, as well as the “Christian Europe” who does not care for its Muslim neighbors’ offspring.
While the French writer and philosopher Marie Jose Mondsin commented on Aylan’s picture saying “whether this photo was fake or not, it unveils the socio-economic conditions of a group of people we know, who share the same sea with us. This photo should incite us to help survivors of the migration journey, as well as joining the campaigns asking for a decent welcome to them”. The doors of Syrian Asylum in Europe, however, were closed that year by a Turkish-European agreement, in return for a financial aid package granted by the latter to the Turkish government.
Childhood in Sexual Assault
Lately, a new video that had gone viral that added more salt to the wounds of the Syrian childhood, this time from Lebanon. Setting a precedent for a child rape recorded on a video that the Arab world hasn’t witnessed before. The video was recorded by one of the three rapists of a Syrian child, all the while bragging while filming. Yet, the rapist soon released it after he quarreled with the other two aggressors. For her part, the boy’s mother, who works in an oil press in the Lebanon governorate of Beqaa, said that her son was subjected to sexual assault crimes several times for the past two years.
Driven by our curiosity, we first saw the video to get to know how the camera depicts a real sexual assault, and how could such a crime containing graphic content, sexual delinquency, and moral perversity spread in the society? What are the implications of a child-rape video on our general visual culture? Will there be more videos of the like in the future, as was the case with previous stories, photos, and films? And then the viewer calls to mind that the victim is a Syrian child, who was beaten and raped, only to add another story to the calamity of the Syrian childhood, another photo, and another video, that may change the culture of the entire Arab region, and make such perverted events, crimes, and visuals the new normal.
More than six million Syrian children don’t have access to education, as Syria has for years ranked very high on the school-dropout list in the world.
In June 2020, the United Nations International Children’s Fund, UNICEF, announced that more than six million Syrian children don’t have access to education, as Syria ranks high on the school-dropout list in the world for years now. The organization also stated that it needs an aid package of 650 million dollars to combat such an alarming phenomenon. Otherwise, the implications of letting generations of children with no education in the future would be inconceivable, especially in a region that is the richest in the world in assets, resources, and oil. The irony here is that Arab investments are pouring into the economies of major countries with growing revenues, while the organizations concerned with children in the region, such as “UNICEF” and “UNRWA”, are begging for donations to save children.
As the French director, Jean-Luc Godard once said, “We can’t change what is happening in a photo… Perhaps the change is what happens from one photo to another,” and we are waiting for the next photo depicting the tragedy of childhood in the region.