Marie Roudani, AFP
Last updated: 9 April, 2013

In Syria’s Aleppo, children adapt to war life

“Goal! Goal!” children scream, kicking a football around like children everywhere. But in war-ravaged Aleppo, their playground is a strip of no-man’s land near buildings on the front line.

In the courtyard of a school destroyed by bombing, they kick around without any apparent regard for the clatter of bullets fired by snipers from the Syrian regime and rebel sides.

In the poorer neighbourhoods of Aleppo, immersed in conflict for the past nine months, it was not unusual even before the war for teenagers to go out to work. But now what little childhood remained for Aleppo youngsters has gone.

“They have forgotten, and in the case of the toddlers, they have never even known normal life. They haven’t known anything but war,” one rebel commander in the city says, with regret in his voice.

“Their role models are the jihadists who blow themselves up.”

On almost every street corner, children can be seen selling cigarettes and honey cakes to the armed rebels fighting the regime, close to pick-up trucks mounted with guns.

In this environment, it’s no surprise that the children have become experts on weaponry. Each time an explosion goes off, even the youngest among them profess to know the difference between a mortar shell, a rocket and tank fire.

“When there’s a plane, we go up on the roof to see it fire,” says 11-year-old Ibrahim, his father looking on with pride.

“My son has become a man very early,” he says.

“The only thing he’s missing is an education, because there are no more schools,” Ibrahim’s mother adds.

In the two years since an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad broke out, the UN children’s agency UNICEF estimates that one in every five schools in Syria has been destroyed.

Among the young salesmen of Aleppo, the mere mention of school elicits a bitter laugh.

“What school? All our schools have been destroyed by bombing. We haven’t been for a year,” 12-year-old Ahmed says.

“We’re on the front, waging jihad. The women are waging an even bigger jihad because they have the education of future generations in their hands, the future of all of Syria,” says one rebel fighter, who left behind a wife and children in his village to fight in Aleppo.

UNICEF says more than two million children have been affected by the conflict in Syria, and has warned that the country’s youth could become a “lost generation” because of insufficient international support.

Many have suffered the psychological trauma of seeing a family member killed, being separated from their parents, or being terrified by the constant threat of bombing, the agency says.

The country’s youngest citizens are also dying in the conflict, with at least nine children among those killed in a single air raid on the Sheikh Maqsud district of Aleppo on Saturday alone.

In addition to being constantly exposed to weapons and violence, some Syrian children have been forced to beg or work to help support their families.

In a garage in the impoverished Maslakh neighbourhood, nine-year-old Yehya leans on the hood of a car as he looks at the building across the street.

“It was my school. It’s been closed for a year. Since then, I’ve worked as a mechanic,” he said.

“My father’s on the front lines, he’s fighting Assad’s soldiers. We are 11 children at home and most of my brothers are working so we can afford to eat.”

He works all day long at the garage to earn 200 Syrian pounds ($2) a week. The work is exhausting, and at night he goes home and collapses into sleep.

“Play? When I get back home, I have neither the time nor the energy to play,” he says.

Others are even less fortunate than Yehya.

At dawn, dozens of children can be seen combing through the piles of garbage that litter Aleppo’s streets, hoping to glean something they can either eat or sell.