Turning rockets into goal posts, abandoned tanks into playthings, and war into a game, children in Syria are hostages to a conflict that has forced them to try to normalise death, loss and violence, residents and activists say.
In rebel-held but besieged Old City of Homs, in central Syria, young children play Free Syrian Army versus Assad regime, using okra for ammunition and aubergines for hand grenades.
Football lovers in the city, parts of which are shelled almost daily, take rockets and turn them into goalposts, according to activists’ photographs.
Speaking to AFP from Homs via Skype, Umm Mohammed says her five grandchildren — the eldest of whom is just nine — are not afraid of the sound of shelling or bullets, and that shrapnel has become just another toy for them.
“But at night, they sometimes wake up screaming,” lamented Umm Mohammed. “No child should see what they are seeing, and they have already seen so much.”
Some older children have it even worse. In northern Aleppo, scene of heavy violence since July 20, an AFP reporter saw several boys in their teens armed with Kalashnikovs, taking part in the fighting.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 1,300 children have been killed in violence in the past 17 months.
Nor are children exempt from detention. According to the Centre for Documentation of Violations in Syria, as of August 14, 698 children have been detained since the outbreak of the anti-regime uprising.
On Tuesday, Syria’s main opposition coalition said a 14-year-old was tortured to death in a prison in the coastal province of Latakia.
“Children are hostages of the violence,” said Omar, a Hama-based activist and uncle of two. “They did nothing to create it, but they are trapped in it.”
Having suffered violence, directly or indirectly, children develop high levels of resilience, experts say, which at once acts as a psychological shield against horror, and at the same time allows them to accept the abnormal as normal.
“My nephew is a seven-year-old child who acts like a man,” Omar told AFP via Skype. Wanted by the authorities, Omar sends his nephew out to tour the neighbourhood and check whether there are military or security forces nearby. “As an uncle, I am sad he has lost his childhood.”
Such examples may be extreme, but they do provide some insight into the way that conflict in Syria has transformed children’s lives, forcing them to adapt to violence, and in many cases, become immersed in it.
“Death has become all too normal for many children,” says Beirut-based psychologist Lina Issa, who works with Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a country that has itself suffered years of war and violence.
“And as much as children are being raised as the heroes of one side or another, that is not a way for children to grow. They need the situation to change.”
Children may be more resilient, Issa said. “But it will take a long time for the real symptoms of their distress to show. Only when stability returns will we know the real psychological cost of this conflict,” she added.
Different children react in different ways to violence, said Issa. “I have seen some young children who should have started walking or talking, but haven’t,” she said.
“Others become defensive, and pretend like nothing is really happening,” she says, noting that some children draw only hearts and flowers, while others’ artwork focuses on violence and conflict.
Indeed, a dramatic amateur video posted by activists on YouTube shows a young wounded girl crying in her father’s arms in Aleppo, as a doctor puts his hand to her back. She has just been wounded by a bullet, but she cries: “I am fine! I am fine!”
Many Syrian children have grown all too accustomed to feeling unsafe, says Isabella Castrogiovanni, a child protection expert at UNICEF Lebanon.
A recent UNICEF survey of Syrian refugee families in Lebanon showed 54 percent of children felt something bad will happen, even after they found shelter outside Syria.
“One child in a UNICEF child-friendly space in Lebanon panics every time he sees someone walking on a rooftop, because he is scared of snipers,” adds Castrogiovanni, who notes how disruptive forced flight is to a child’s development.
Even in the most tragic circumstances, some children manage to retain hope. In Homs Old City, seven-year-old Maryam (not her real name) told AFP via Skype: “When I grow up, I want to become a doctor, so that I can help the injured.”
Twice displaced, Maryam, a granddaughter of Umm Mohammed, does not recognise she is besieged, nor does she say that her family was forced to flee their home in Bab Dreib.
To Maryam, home is her current shelter. “I live at home, with my family. We are fine.”
Others are less positive, and their imagination is a mirror-image of the daily loss of life in Syria. “One child tells me stories every day, as part of his therapy,” says Issa. “His storyline changes, but the ending is always the same.”
In this child’s world, whatever the outcome in Syria, she says, “everybody dies.”