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‘Mom, I’m Scared’ as Child Traumas Compound Syrian War Cost

Syrian Child
A Syrian child reacts following an air strike attack by government forces on the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Feb. 22, 2014. Photographer: Khaled Khatib/AFP/Getty Images

At 4 years old, Edmond Michael Abdel-Nour can distinguish the sound of a bullet from that of a mortar hitting his Damascus neighborhood.

A toddler when the conflict in Syria began, Abdel-Nour has lived through war for most of his life, learning to correctly identify an outgoing shell from an incoming one before he’s even managed to master the alphabet.

“It’s the kind of knowledge I wish my son didn’t have,” said his mother, Manar Makhoul, 31. “There’s a whole generation of Syrian children who have been robbed of their childhood because of this crisis,” she said by telephone from Damascus.

Syria’s conflict enters its fourth year this month with no sign that the war that has killed more than 140,000 people will end soon. As on all battlefields, children have been the most vulnerable victims, living horrors beyond their years. At least 10,000 of them have died, more than a million are living as refugees and millions more are displaced inside their country, according to a United Nations report last month.

They’ve been summarily executed, recruited for combat, sexually abused, detained and tortured, according to the report. Both Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government and the rebels trying to topple him are to blame, it said.

Lost Generation

“We’ve had children say, ‘I don’t want to live anymore,’” said Anthony MacDonald, chief of child protection at the United Nations Children’s Fund in neighboring Lebanon. “We’ve had experts UNICEF has supported who are saying they have been in Afghanistan, in all these wars around the world, but this is one of the worst they have ever seen.”

While the world’s attention turns to the Cold War-style standoff over Ukraine, the death and destruction continue unabated in Syria. Plans by the U.S. to intervene in the country last year were halted after Russia refused to agree, instead forcing Assad to give up chemical weapons and start peace talks.

The generation of Syrians shaped by the war now risk making any lasting peace and security more elusive.

“It’s not just a lost generation in terms of them being killed,” MacDonald said. “It’s a lost generation who are psychologically and physiologically scarred. If their concerns are not addressed now, many of them will turn to other forms of criminal behavior and antisocial behavior as a way of coping.”

Cost of War

Economically, the price of having a chunk of Syria’s young population traumatized, poorly educated and badly injured will be steep in a country that has lost more than a third of its output, said Mohsin Khan, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

“These are the non-quantifiable costs of war,” said Khan. “This will have an impact on the supply of skilled and professional labor for a considerable period of time, perhaps even as much as a decade. So we should not expect Syria to return to its original pre-2010 period for a long time.”

Before any recovery can begin, the conflict needs to end, a prospect that looks bleak with the collapse of peace talks in Geneva this year. The government and the opposition haven’t managed to agree on the agenda, and UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi hasn’t set a date for a new round.

In the meantime, clashes have intensified in the strategic mountainous Qalamoun region as Assad’s troops try to sever a major supply route for opposition fighters. The government’s barrel bomb attacks on the northern city of Aleppo and the southern province of Daraa have escalated as has infighting between the fractured rebel groups.

Bloodiest Period

Between Jan. 22, when the talks opened, and Feb. 15, when the second round ended, almost 6,000 people died, making it the bloodiest period of the war, according to Rami Abdurrahman, head of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

On the main streets of Beirut and the Jordanian capital Amman, Syrian children can be seen on virtually every corner.

Preteen boys and girls run after passersby or knock on car windows asking for money. Others sell boxes of tissues at traffic lights. Infants sit in their mothers’ laps on sidewalks. In rural areas, children have been put to work in agriculture.

“We’ve interviewed children as young as 8, 9 and 10 who are forced to wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning and work till 6 p.m.,” MacDonald said.

Shattered System

Ghourba Hajji, 33, fled her home in the northeastern Hasaka province three months ago with two daughters, age 3 and 6. She turned to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Beirut for help. Both children have pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease, and she cannot afford to treat them.

“I don’t want them to die,” said Hajji, as she waited for her turn to speak to a UNHCR official.

The war has shattered Syria’s health system and a series of epidemics have left millions of children exposed to deadly diseases, the charity Save the Children said in a statement yesterday. Children are having limbs amputated because clinics don’t have the necessary equipment for appropriate treatment; newborn babies are dying in their incubators during power cuts; patients are being knocked out with metal bars because of lack of anesthesia, according to the report.

“The desperate measures to which medical personnel are resorting to keep children alive are increasingly harrowing,” Save the Children said.”

MacDonald said instances of depression and post-traumatic stress are increasing among the children, manifested through erratic behavior, broken sleep, bed wetting and aggression.

Young Witnesses

Fleeing the country and witnessing atrocities are among the causes. The other is the conditions they’re living in now, from becoming main breadwinners, to lack of access to basic services and growing tension at home, which can lead to physical and domestic violence in the family, he said.

Syria’s Health Ministry is training staff to deal with patients with psychological conditions and is working with the World Health Organization to set up a strategy for post-conflict Syria, state-run SANA news agency reported this month.

The war was present in the drawings of children age 7 to 14 at an art exhibition at the government-run Cultural Center in Damascus last month. The works displayed featured the Syrian flag with blood dripping from it, children saluting the Syrian Army and a white dove flying.

“It’s a sign of the children’s awareness of what is happening around them,” said Afif Della, the center’s director.

Schools Damaged

Minister of Education Hazwan al-Wazz said the damage caused by rebel attacks against educational institutions exceeded 110 billion pounds ($760 million), state-run SANA news agency said. He said that more than 3,465 schools were damaged and 1,000 others turned into makeshift residential centers.

Makhoul, like many Syrian mothers, stresses over the safety of her son and 7-year-old daughter. The family had a close call in November when a rocket crashed near her son’s school in Bab Touma, injuring five students from another school.

Abdel-Nour and his classmates were rushed to the basement and were later given a three-week break. “When the time came for him to return to school, he clung to me, saying, ‘Mom, I’m scared. Bombs may fall.’”

She now limits their outings, and when they nag, she tells them: “There are loud noises outside. It’s too dangerous.

‘‘I don’t like doing that,” added Makhoul. “The lives our children are living are too old for them.”

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