Syria's children targeted and under fire

Lyse Doucet
Chief international correspondent
@bbclysedouceton Twitter

image copyrightAP

Spare the children. That is what so many have said for so long. But in Syria, the littlest ones are not, as we often say, just "caught in the crossfire".

They are being targeted.

"A lost generation," lamented the UN children's fund Unicef on Tuesday.

"A war on childhood," regretted the War Child charity last year.

Syrian children are too young to understand the intricacies of a complex and brutal war fought in the name of their future.

But they know what childhood should feel like.

"You should tell her," insisted a young boy in a Damascus suburb when his frightened mother cautiously told me "everything is fine" not far from where soldiers manned a checkpoint.

"The helicopters attacked yesterday," he earnestly explained in a little person's voice and with a big person's courage.

"We are staying in our houses because we're really scared. We're begging them to stop."

But the war is not stopping; it is getting worse.

The latest report, from Save the Children, cites research that one in three children say they have been hit, kicked or shot at, as fighting between rebels and government forces has escalated over the past two years.

image copyrightAFP
image captionUnicef says one in every five schools in Syria has been destroyed, damaged or converted into a shelter

"My best friend Kholoud died right in front my eyes when we were playing," a brave 12-year-old told us last year as she fought back tears in a so-called "child-friendly space" run by War Child in northern Lebanon, home to many refugees.

"A bullet went through her cheek and came out through her neck."

Randa's own house was hit by a rocket in the city of Homs: a wall fell on her mother, father, and younger brother.

"My mother said, 'Thank God we survived.'"

But then the family fled, like millions of other Syrians.

'Absolutely terrified'

When we visited the same neighbourhood in Homs, we found a devastated and desolate place.

Among the few families still living in the ruins, we met a woman and her young son.

Rahid gave us a shy teenage smile.

"Do you miss playing with your friends?" I asked.

He looked down at his ragged shoes.

"They're all dead," he mumbled.

image copyrightAP
image captionMany Syrian children have reportedly experienced the death of a relative or friend

For most children, there is not even the comfort of returning to the routine of school.

Unicef's latest report says one in every five schools has been destroyed, damaged or converted into a shelter.

Syria's statistics can be numbing as they continue to climb. But in all the numbers, there is a story about children.

We often hear how more than 70,000 have died.

Save the Children says three-quarters of children have experienced the death of a relative or close friend.

There are more than a million refugees - the UN says more than half of them are children, most under the age of 11.

Visit any of the many refugee camps or informal settlements now spreading in neighbouring countries at alarming rates of growth.

Children are everywhere, sometimes laughing and playing as children do, but often coughing with cold and fever, or crying.

image copyrightAFP
image captionUN says more than half of Syrian refugees are children

This month I heard another story about an 11-year-old who survived a terrible war.

Her name is Babs Clarke - a British woman, now 81 - who still lives with painful memories of what is now called the worst but least known civilian disaster of the World War II.

"I was absolutely terrified," she told me as she recounted what happened on 3 March 1943 at London's Bethnal Green tube station when 173 died in a crush of people.

"I remember my father. I idolised him. He was such a big man… but on that day he cried."

Ms Clarke, and many like her, took decades to talk about their childhood pain.

Syrian children are sharing their stories now.

And the rest of the world cannot say they do not know what is happening.

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