Yazen is a four-year-old boy from Homs who found refuge in the Lebanese town of Ras Baalbek three months ago. He lost his ability to speak because of the psychological trauma he endured after being brutally beaten by the Syrian regime’s thugs when they came into his home in search of his father.
The killing machine in Syria did not spare children; rather, since the start of the uprising, the regime of Bashar al-Assad has intentionally targeted them, earning the Syrian president the title of “child murderer” among his detractors.
According to the Center for Documentation of Violations in Syria, 1,089 children – boys and girls alike – have been killed so far, and 464 wounded.
At the start of the uprising, a group of Syrians launched an initiative on Facebook calling for keeping children out of protests to keep them protected from the pro-regime forces that attack demonstrations. But it was not enough, as the killers go after children in their homes and schools. Reports by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch indicate that schools have been turned into detention and torture centers run by regime forces, who would also position snipers on the roofs.
According to the same reports, children have been shot by snipers, killed by shelling, tortured to death, and have died from untreated wounds. Reports also mention children being raped in prisons.
Anna Neistat, an associate director at Human Rights Watch, worked for years on conflicts from Chechnya to Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. In an article in the Global Post, she said that the level of state-sanctioned torture taking place in Syria is incomparable with any other conflict she has ever witnessed. There is no distinction between children and adults in prisons, she said, adding that if anything, children are more brutally beaten, as investigators believe they respond faster to such practices.
In the same context, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay told the BBC that hundreds of children were taken as hostages or information sources. The Human Rights Watch report said that regular troops used children as human shields and put them in tanks and buses when the Syrian army stormed Ain Larouz in the province of Edleb on March 10.
The Syrian regime uses methodical violence against children for many reasons, including revenge, as children have played an essential role in the uprising from the beginning; indeed, it was children who wrote anti-regime slogans on walls in Daraa, launching the protests last year.
The regime is also trying to send other children a message. A year ago this week, the regime brutally tortured Hamza al-Khatib before sending his mutilated body to his parents, thus delivering a message to its opponents right from the start, namely that it is not bound by any moral and humanitarian deterrent and is capable of committing atrocities if the revolution goes on.
By targeting children, the regime is “striking the foundations” of the new generation and undermining the stability, safety and future of society and family, especially in rural areas where children are regarded as an “investment” by parents and a means to provide for them when they grow old, according to the UC Davis Human Rights Initiative Blog.
These practices have tremendous and dangerous effects on children who survive or witness such violence. “[The child] suffers from deep disorders and experiences a state of concern and feeling of being unsafe. This renders him or her unable to plan for the future, ignites his or her anger and influences his or her behavior,” says Psychoanalyst Rena Sarkis. “Any change in the child’s habits, such as having a different school or home, can put him or her in a state of shock. Seeing pictures of an earthquake in some countries affects the child’s spirit, as he or she fears that something similar may happen to him or her. This holds especially true when war invades his or her street, home and school. It is as though he or she was left alone in this life without any reference and markers,” Sarkis added.
Children victims of violence need to rebuild their sense of security and dignity by talking over what happened to help them understand and move on, Sarkis said, though UNICEF Child Protection Officer Abir Abi Khalil noted that while some children can express themselves using words, others find it difficult to do so.
In an attempt to provide them with psychological support, UNICEF established “child-friendly spaces” in the Lebanese regions in which Syrian nationals took refuge. Volunteers organize entertainment, cultural and educational activities for children and use drawing to help them express what they cannot put into words. “Drawings speak,” says Abi Khalil, adding that in their first drawings, many children depicted weapons, fire and guns. “Several months now into their displacement and participation in activities, they have started drawing suns and children.”
According to UNICEF Media Director Souha Bsat, the idea underlying the project is to allow the child to lead a normal life away from home, since parents – due to their mental state – cannot provide an atmosphere of joy and calm. These activities also help Syrian children mingle with their Lebanese peers, who also need spaces for playing and entertainment, since the Lebanese regions that saw an influx of Syrian refugees are the poorest in Lebanon. Bsat goes on saying that these spaces fill the free time of displaced children constructively, especially for those who have been unable to enroll in Lebanese schools or were forced to work in order to provide for their families.
In Syria too, despite the killing, groups have started providing psychological support to children. “We are rebelling for them so that we provide them with a more beautiful future. The calendar of freedom gives a detailed description every Tuesday of activities and games that help children deal with psychological trauma resulting from violence,” according to the Facebook page of Syrian journal Ayyam al-Horriya (Days of Freedom).