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Syrians at ‘rock bottom’ as war reaches sixth year

17 March 2017


Living among the ruins: a group of women pick their way through the rubble of damaged building in the city of al-Bab, in northern Syria

Living among the ruins: a group of women pick their way through the rubble of damaged building in the city of al-Bab, in northern Syria

WAR crimes, disappearances, and the recruiting of children as executioners and prison guards featured in grim retrospectives published on the eve of the sixth anniversary of the Syrian conflict.

Six years after Syrian teenagers who painted anti-regime graffiti were interrogated and tortured, sparking protests and a brutal crackdown, children are paying the heaviest price in the war, aid agencies say. A UNICEF report, Hitting Rock Bottom, published on Monday, says that at least 652 children were killed in 2016, a 20-per-cent increase on 2015. In less than a week, in Aleppo, 223 children were injured, and 96 were killed.

The battle for control of Aleppo, a rebel stronghold, and its eventual capture by regime forces, backed by Russia, dominated media coverage of Syria last year. The Archbishop of Canterbury described events in the city as “demonic” (News, 14 October). This week, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, recalled how the “desperate appeals” of people in Aleppo “had little or no impact on the global leaders whose influence could help bring about an end to the fighting”.

He described Syria as “a torture-chamber: a place of savage horror and absolute injustice”, where “countless people” had suffered arbitrary detention, torture, kidnap, and enforced disappearance.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International launched a campaign, Justice for Syria, calling on governments to fund the investigative mechanism on Syria voted for by the UN General Assembly last year, and, by enforcing universal jurisdiction, to investigate and prosecute, in their own courts, suspected perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

A report published by the UN Human Rights Council this week accused government and pro-government forces of a “complete disregard for civilian life and international law”. It documented war crimes, including attacks on hospitals, schools, and water stations, and the use of prohibited weapons, including chlorine canisters. In one “ruthless airstrike” carried out by the Syrian Air Force on a complex of schools in Idlib last year, 21 children were killed. Atrocities by armed groups were also documented, including summary executions and the recruitment of children.

UNICEF has calculated that the number of children recruited and used in conflict has more than doubled in the past year, to 850. In “extreme cases” they were being used as suicide bombers, executioners, and prison guards. In total, more than 1.7 million children are out of school in Syria.

The report finds glimmers of hope, including the fact that 12,600 school children crossed active conflict lines to sit their final school exams; they “insist on learning by transforming basements, caves, and old barns into schools and playgrounds”.

World Vision’s response manager for northern Syria, Dr Chris Latif, described this week how NGOs were the only providers of humanitarian assistance in areas not under government control. World Vision is focusing on Aleppo and Idlib. She said that beneficiaries were often middle-class families who were accustomed to living in cities “not that different to London or Melbourne”, and who had gone from enjoying free public services to struggling to find water that was safe to drink. With every border closed, people were fleeing from one area of conflict to another: some had moved eight times.

Child labour and early marriage were significant and growing concerns, she said. She had seen mothers crying while taking their children out of school to work, and leaving hospital immediately after giving birth, out of fear of the hospital being attacked.

World Vision estimated that, in the past year, it had reached 2.3 million people — half of them children — inside Syria and in neighbouring countries, providing education, food and financial assistance, water, and health care. To those who evacuated Aleppo in December, now living in “dire and dangerous conditions in the countryside west of the city”, it has distributed thousands of blankets, heaters, and fuel.

Dr Latif paid tribute to the charity’s “beautiful Syrian colleagues”, who were risking their lives to help those in need. Dozens of aid workers have been killed in Syria during the conflict.

A nationwide ceasefire was agreed by Russia and Turkey at the end of last year. But, on Wednesday, the head of Middle East at Christian Aid, Frances Guy, said that it was “clearly not working”. One partner of the charity reports that, in recent weeks, 20,000 people have fled bombing in towns north-east of Damascus.

Ms Guy pointed to “medieval tactics of siege and starvation”, and urged world leaders to push for a political settlement. UN-sponsored talks in Geneva this month ended with an agreement to resume at the end of this month.

It is estimated that 465,000 people have been killed in the course of the conflict, including 96,000 civilians. It was hard to predict what the next anniversary would bring, Dr Latif said, but the signs were “not very positive. . . The risk of civilian casualties is still really high, and seems to be getting higher.”

The International Monetary Fund has suggested that it could take Syria at least 20 years to reach its pre-war GDP, and the costs of reconstruction have been calculated at about $200 billion.

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