With over 160,000 people dead, the conflict in Syria is among the most brutal of recent times. Now into its fourth year, the violence shows no signs of abating, while the sectarian conflict raging in neighbouring Iraq makes the prospects of peace in Syria more difficult to predict. Sucked into this conflict are millions of children. Thousands have died and hundreds of thousands brutalized by the war. The psychological well-being of the children affected by the Syria crisis will remain a question-mark for a long time to come.
During the course of my humanitarian work in Syria, I have listened to many children share their perspectives. The death of family members, whether siblings or a parent or other loved one is common. Being displaced from their homes, often more than once, and finding their friends and communities snatched away. Memories of repeated attacks from warring parties that flattened whole neighborhoods, fires that raged through the night stay with them.
An out-of-school, internally displaced child I met outside a shelter in Aleppo questioned the very purpose of going to school: “My father was killed in the war and so was my uncle. I know I will be the next to die. So what good is it to attend school?”
Fear runs through the hearts and minds of young lives in Syria. The heart-stopping sounds of mortars, shells and artillery bombardment can leave children shaking and crying uncontrollably. Parents report bed-wetting even among children as old as 12 years of age. In Aleppo, Homs and Damascus, I have seen children playing war games and other games built on stories of funerals, security check-points and other aspects of the conflict society.
Behaviour changes can be seen in the way children play: “Children are living with a lot of violence,” Hamis, a counsellor at a school in central Damascus told me. “It is clear from their behaviour. When they play it is mostly play acting clashes and violence. Fighting and beating is a part of most games children play.” The school counsellor recalls the case of a Grade 5 child who carried a knife to school, brandishing it in class. The child would not let go of the knife and called it his ‘self-protection device’. “His parents were not aware that the child was hiding the knife in his bag,” says Hamis. “It took me several individual sessions with the child to make him feel reassured that he would not be harmed at school.”
Children are experiencing severe and chronic psychological and social affects that is impacting the psychological health of a generation of children. The relentless violence that children continue to experience can have long-term negative consequences on children’s cognitive and learning abilities, as well as on their social development.
Everyday life is dominated by a stressful war environment in many areas which defines the state of children’s psychological health in Syria. With parents progressively impoverished by the war, displaced children have routinely lost prized possessions including clothing, books, and toys. They no longer have their own spaces and networks of friends and family have been torn apart.
The UN estimates that some 4.3 million children in Syria are affected by the crisis, including almost three million who are internally displaced. Many of these children need sustained and specialised psychosocial support. In the absence of such support being made available, a whole generation of children in Syria risks losing out on their rights for a decent childhood. Syria and the rest of the world will pay the consequences of inaction in providing for the dire needs of children’s social and psychological needs. The international community must dither no more in its support.
By the end of 2013, in addition to being involved in supporting large programmes for vaccination, clean water and sanitation and education, UNICEF had reached 142,000 children with various child protection interventions designed to helping children cope with the crisis. UNICEF-supported programmes for child protection strive to encourage children to participate in organised recreational activities such as story-telling, drawing and painting. Children are also provided opportunities for one-on-sessions to expiate negative thought processes. While this represents significant practical assistance, the needs among children remain huge.
Many of these interventions are carried out through the platform of School Clubs for Syrian children. The school clubs are also forums for advancing remedial education, so needed in a country that has seen a vast majority of schools destroyed, vandalized or militarized and effective schooling interrupted for so many children.
In a recent op-ed, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon noted: “Our humanitarian and other efforts are saving lives and reducing suffering. But our fundamental objective — an end to the conflict – remains unmet. The bleak prospects for peace have darkened further with the flare-up of violence and sectarian tensions in Iraq. The cohesion and integrity of two major countries (Syria and Iraq), not just one, is in question.”
The long-term consequences on children should be uppermost in our minds.
Kumar Tiku is the chief of Communications at UNICEF Syria.