Wednesday, February 12, 2014



Witnessing Syria's War Through the Eyes Of Its Children


The findings of a recent United Nations report cataloging the toll of Syria's civil war on children are stark. Nearly three years into the fighting, more than 10,000 children have been killed, 3 million have been displaced from their homes, and another 1.1 million now live as refugees.

The details are chilling: The U.N. found that government forces have used children as human shields, shot at children with snipers and detained children as young as 11 for their alleged association with the opposition. In detention, children have been held in the same cells as adults, sexually violated and in some instances tortured:

Ill treatment and acts tantamount to torture reportedly included beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives.

Abuses have not been limited to the regime. The report found that armed opposition groups have "engaged in the summary execution of children," recruited children for combat, and taken children hostage in exchange for ransom or the release of prisoners. And the extremist jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) "has set up Islamic schools in which children are reportedly indoctrinated to fight for 'jihad,'" according to the report.

Amid such turmoil, the notion of a normal childhood has all but disappeared for the young bystanders of war featured in tonight's FRONTLINE investigation, Children of Aleppo. In the film, FRONTLINE returns to Syria's biggest city for an intimate look at life during wartime through the eyes of children.

One of the characters profiled in the film is Farah, an eight year old who says her favorite activity is helping her father, a rebel commander, build bombs. It's dangerous work, and Farah knows it. In the following excerpt from Children of Aleppo, she describes the day her father was nearly killed while making a bomb with a fellow fighter.

Children of Aleppo airs alongside Syria's Second Front, an investigation by FRONTLINE correspondent and Syrian native Muhammad Ali into the fight against ISIS in the north of the country. This two-part report debuts tonight on most PBS stations (check local listings here), or you can watch both segments online, starting at 10 pm EST.

Is this a life? No, this isn't a life.' The words were those of 14-year-old Mohammed, a boy from Aleppo in Syria.

His eight-year-old sister Farah's favourite pastime was helping her father in his office. Making bombs.

It's all too easy to throw your hands up in despair and become baffled by what's been going on in Syria, a conflict that's slipped from the headlines of late.

But if you needed reminding of the human impact when a country implodes, then Children On The Frontline hit the target bang on.

There was a genuinely jump-out-of-the-seat moment when, as a young girl called Nasma sang a song about yearning for freedom, the screen shuddered with an almighty bang. Nasma's peaceful protest had been hijacked by an explosion, the soundtrack to the daily lives of the children whose families haven't fled Aleppo's decimated streets.

Children On The Frontline was essentially the story of Mohammed and his three sisters, a foursome who declared: 'We will live and die with our dad.'

Dad was Abu Ali, a leader in the Free Syrian Army, and living with him and their mum meant dashing in and out of their crumbling apartment block and dreaming of the days when they used to buy ice cream.

'Now we can't even think about going anywhere,' said Farah, who, chillingly, could tell what kind of bomb had gone off, just from its sound.

These were children old before their time, though from time to time they showed their age, the youngest, Sara, five, throwing a strop when she was told she couldn't take a cuddly toy from a neighbour's abandoned house.

Seeing her kick off was almost a relief, a reminder of just how young these children were.

The film largely steered clear, wisely, of the complex politics at the heart of the Syrian situation, though Abu Ali's fear, voiced early on, that his side's battle against the Assad regime was being subverted by external forces carried a bitter postscript.

By the end of the film, he had been abducted. His sacrifice – and the sacrifice of his children's childhood – could all be in vain.

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