Last Updated: Fri Jan 13, 2012 12:49 pm (KSA) 09:49 am (GMT)

Syria’s child refugees haunted by violence

“We ran away because of Bashar,” whispers Fatima, an eight-year-old with long dark curls. “He’s coming into our homes and destroying them. (Reuters)
“We ran away because of Bashar,” whispers Fatima, an eight-year-old with long dark curls. “He’s coming into our homes and destroying them. (Reuters)

“There was no blood and I didn’t cry,” seven-year-old Mohammed recalls with almost eerie composure, describing the night he and his twin sister were shot as their family fled the unrest in Syria.

“I felt a sharp pain and then some warmth in my leg,” says Mohammed of that split second on May 15, when a bullet tore through his right knee while his sister Munira lay nearby, bleeding from three bullet wounds to her right leg.

The twins are among some 1,800 children up to the age of 18 who have fled Syria to Lebanon since the revolt broke out last March, according to the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR).

The majority languish with their families in this impoverished border region at the northern tip of Lebanon, their playfulness dulled by the upheaval shaking their country.

Mohammed and Munira fled along with eight family members and just the clothes on their backs. Home today is a run-down house right at the border, where the thin foam mattresses on which they sleep are the only furniture.

Some two dozen children between the ages of six and 15 interviewed this week in Wadi Khaled had trouble putting into words the trauma they have experienced, referring over and over again to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad as a sort of “bogeyman.”

“We ran away because of Bashar,” whispers Fatima, an eight-year-old with long dark curls. “He’s coming into our homes and destroying them.

“He’s killing the people. I don’t know why.”

Each child has a story of a loved one, neighbor or friend killed during the 10-month popular revolt that has left more than 5,000 people dead according to the United Nations.

Clearly influenced by adult talk around them, the children, all Sunni Muslims, speak with anger or hatred of the Alawites, Assad’s ruling minority sect which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

“The Alawites were shooting at us and some of the people fleeing were hurt,” says nine-year-old Rami.

“The security forces pierced my uncle Ahmed’s arm with a drill and I know of one family where the baby was killed,” he adds.

The vast majority of the refugees hail from Tal Kalakh -- a mainly Sunni Muslim village near the border -- or the restive central Syrian city of Homs and surrounding villages.

The UNHCR says there are currently 5,039 refugees registered in Lebanon. Most of them live with host families, but about 200 are living in derelict schools.

Although efforts have been made to enrol the children in local schools, the task has proven difficult given differences between the Lebanese and Syrian educational systems.

Many classes in Lebanon, notably science and maths, are given in either French or English. But in Syria, the predominant language is Arabic.

“We have noticed that many of the adolescents have difficulties coping with the Lebanese curriculum,” says Alain al-Ghafari, project coordinator for the UNHCR. “For that reason they are not motivated to enrol.”

He says relief organizations are working to ensure children attend classes and also to provide them with remedial and other assistance to cope with their trauma.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Save the Children-Sweden are also setting up a project to provide “safe places” where the children can get psychological, social and recreational support.

“These children have been separated from home, from their family, school and friends,” said Annamaria Laurini, UNICEF’s representative in Lebanon. “They have lost a sense of normalcy to their life.

“They have been affected by what they have seen, what they went through and they have the right to live out their childhood.”

For many, however, that appears already too late as they speak with young voices about real -- not virtual -- gun battles, the calibre of weapons and street demonstrations in their strife-torn country.

“We weren’t scared when we were demonstrating,” says Huzayfa, 14, recalling street marches he took part in before fleeing Tal Kalakh.

“We were all together marching for freedom,” he adds. “But when they (security forces) caught me and held me for a while, it was very scary and I was crying.”

Their hopes and dreams remain those of children.

“I want to go back and play with my bicycle. I left it in the kitchen,” says Mohammed. His twin sister wants to recover the stuffed animal she left behind.

Another seven-year-old, also called Mohammed, is very homesick.

“There is war in my country and I don’t know who’s fighting who or why they are fighting,” he says shyly. “I just want to go home.”

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