Atrocities compel Syria's kids to grow up soon
Yusuf glares defiantly at his mother and says: "No, I won't go to school." Schools have been set up at Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan where his family are staying. But Yusuf, seven, won't be going. For him, school means death. He is understandably terrified
Back home in Syria it was at his school that the ‘bad men’ came for him. “I was sitting in class one day when they came,” he says, staring at his family tent’s tarpaulin floor.
“They wanted to take me away. They’d done it to other kids in the past, boys whose dads were fighting in the Syrian Free Army. They kidnap the boys and say they won’t give them back until their fathers hand themselves in.”
Yusuf’s mother Mahal dashed to his school when she heard local thugs had come to the village for her son. As she stormed into the classroom to grab him, fighting broke out and she was shot in the arm. She rolls up her sleeve to show the scar.
That day Mahal rescued Yusuf in the confusion. But the family’s life became defined by fear.
Both his parents were vocal critics of the government, making the entire family targets. It wasn’t long before the thugs returned for Yusuf at school.
“They grabbed me, then one of them put a grenade around my chest and tucked it inside my shirt,” he says.
“They said to me, ‘The first time we do this to you we won’t detonate it. The second time we do this, we will. Do not come back to school.”
Yusuf has the look of a kid a little bit tough, a little bit terrified and hiding all those conflicting emotions with a lot of bravado.
When I ask whether he was very scared that day, he doesn’t want to admit it. But slowly he nods.
The family struggled on in their home for another couple of months but life only became tougher.
“One day they drove up and down our street firing at the houses with machine guns,” says Mahal.
“When they saw it still wasn’t making us leave they came back the next day.
“That’s when they poured benzine around our home and set it on fire. It was all gone.”
The family sheltered in a nearby village but rockets exploded around them day and night and finally the family headed for Jordan.
“I didn’t want to leave, but we had to,” says Yusuf. “I miss my friends and my father.
“Back home we’d go to the pool or ride round on my bike. It’s not nice here. There’s too much dust.”
Yusuf does spend time at one of the 14 child-friendly spaces created around the camp by Save The Children (STC) where kids can play.
But despite his mother telling him countless times that the school at Zaatari would be safe, he still can’t believe it.
“If I go they will find me and put a bomb in my chest,” he says. “Or they will capture me. That will pressurise my father to turn himself in.”
Yusuf, like thousands of child refugees from Syria, has been forced to grow up too soon by the atrocities he has seen and the trauma of fleeing to another country.
Locals call Zaatari the “children’s camp”. About 60 per cent of the 1,30,000 people living here are children and last week this terrible civil war notched up another statistic with its one millionth child refugee.
Charities like STC are working to make life more tolerable for these kids. STC’s Rosie Childs explains, “Many here have endured things no child should see.
“In our child-friendly spaces our expert teams create a place where they could be anywhere in the world so they can leave the trauma of their experiences behind and start to rebuild their childhood.”
Despite the charities’ best efforts, the camp offers a grim childhood comprising dusty boredom, sparse rations and searing heat.
But 14-year-old Wala’a, for one, is certain it is better than life in Syria. “It is worse there than people can imagine,” she says. “One day I went to my grandfather’s house and saw a man shot outside by a sniper. Then at a school near our home a kid wrote something about the regime on the blackboard.
The principal came in and said, ‘Who wrote this?’ but no one would say, so he called the authorities. Soon after, all the fathers of the children were called in and told, ‘If you want your children back you have to swap your women for them’.
“It was for them to be raped.”
Such stories can sound almost too extraordinary but similar accounts are repeated frequently around the camp.
“My father would go to work in the morning and see garbage bins by the road where bodies had been dumped in,” Wala’a continues.
“Then families of people who had disappeared started getting phone calls saying if they paid a certain amount, they could have them back. But when they paid and went to the place as instructed all they found was a bin bag of body parts.”
Wala’a’s gruesome stories seem incongruous coming from such a strikingly pretty teenager with an infectious giggle bedecked in canary yellow scarf and aqua-painted nails.
She is a vivid burst of colour in the bleached-out camp where she arrived seven months ago with her family. Before the fighting started, her father had a good job in a factory, she spent weekends hanging out with friends. Now she is trying to continue with her studies at one of the camp’s schools and spends her free time at a centre run by STC for teenage girls where they learn sewing and drawing.
Back home in Syria, Wala’a once wanted to join the military. That was before she saw the carnage fighting can bring.
“Now I want to be a doctor,” she says with a dazzling grin. “I want to help mend the people hurt by everything that has happened.”
While Wala’a’s experiences have made her passionate and vocal about the situation in Syria -- for 12-year-old Farid it has had the opposite effect. He was struck dumb by what he has seen.
“It was one night just over a year ago when the rockets were coming,” explains his mother Ibtissam.
“We went to the shelter beneath our house. Then one rocket came and hit our home. Farid was terrified. When we came up, we saw our house was destroyed. Farid was shaking violently and couldn’t speak. He didn’t speak for months and now he just says the occasional word.
Farid’s family know he can talk but chooses not to. He appears to have opted out of the violent world he has been forced to endure.
For him and the hundreds of thousands of other children who have fled Syria, the adult world of bombs and guns is somewhere they simply do not want to be.
The Mirror/ The Interview People