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The scars left on Idlib’s children will not fade

It is the children of Idlib who will bear the greatest scars of the Syrian government's offensive on northwest Syria.

17 February 2020

AMMAN — There is nothing to distract Ali Hassan’s son, Khaled, from the brutal cold in Aleppo province, which dropped to -8 degrees Celsius on Thursday night. 

Khaled, who is seven-years-old, was enrolled in a school in the town of Saraqeb until his family was forced to flee government forces and find shelter in Jenderes, a small town in the western countryside of Aleppo province.

It’s been a month since they fled and a month since Khaled last sat in a classroom, as “there are no schools” in Jenderes that have space for him, according to his father. Saraqeb was retaken by Syrian government forces on February 7.

Khaled is just one of more than 246,500 children displaced by the government’s latest offensive on northwest Syria between January 16 and February 11, according to statistics provided to Syria Direct by the Response Coordination Group, a local humanitarian group. Over 6,500 children are displaced every day by the advancing government forces and their relentless, indiscriminate bombing, according to a UNICEF press release.

“Children are the main victims of ongoing fighting,” Ingy Sedky, the Deputy Communications Director of the International Committee of the Red Cross Syria (ICRC) told Syria Direct. “Families are forced to leave in a rush, running for their lives without being able to take any belongings or clothes that can keep them warm. There’s also the risk of family separations in such situations,” Sedky explained. 

The scale of human misery has far outstripped the capacities of local and international humanitarian organizations, the latter of which are facing issues in accessing the hundreds of thousands of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) due to the ongoing fighting in the area. 

Though the ICRC is active in Aleppo province, it is unable to access Idlib, where most of the IDPs are, Sedky said. As long as the fighting continues, it will be “challenging” for humanitarians to do their work, she added. 

The new wave of IDPs—roughly 800,000 individuals—joins the 121,832 families already squatting out in the open, enduring biting cold and rain under trees, some without even a tent.

The leaves of the olive trees, however, offer little protection from government bombing. Three IDPs were injured after government forces shelled an IDP camp in Sarmada city in northern Idlib province on Friday.  

On Thursday, a doctor in Aleppo shared a photo of a young girl who was brought to the hospital for emergency treatment. Her father walked two hours in the snow to bring her to the hospital, swaddling her in blankets and pressing her close to his chest to keep her warm. When he arrived and the doctors removed her from the blankets, they discovered that she had frozen to death somewhere along the way, unbeknownst to her father who trudged on. 

A drawing of the little girl who froze to death on Thursday, 13/02/2020 (Omar Aljbain)

A drawing of the little girl who froze to death on Thursday, 13/02/2020 (Omar Aljbain)

“It is only the civilians who are paying the price of a conflict they have absolutely nothing to do with,” Sedky said.

Traumatized children

“All he does is sit in his room all day,” Ali Hassan says of his son. There is no school for Khaled to attend and local organizations are too overwhelmed to offer anything but the bare minimum. Though Hassan considers it a miracle that they even found a house to live in, he is worried about the effects that his family’s displacement will have on Khaled’s mental health. 

In the absence of psychological services, and with most IDPs struggling to even find food to eat, children are left to process the new realities of their living situation and the traumatic, often violent circumstances of their displacement alone. In some cases, children might have been recently orphaned or have been separated from their families in the chaos of their flight. 

“Displaced children and those living in conflict-affected settings face cognitive, physical and social-emotional challenges that affect how they learn, grow and interact with others,” Dr. Aala el-Khani, a specialist in psychological care for refugees and UN consultant, told Syria Direct.

Still, even when resources are adequate for aid distribution, “the mental health and well-being of children are often overlooked,” el-Khani said. In these situations, “strong family relationships are even more crucial as a source of protection” for children, she added.

In a somewhat morbid example of a family-oriented coping mechanism, a father shared a video of him and his family teaching his four-year-old daughter to laugh whenever she hears a nearby airstrike rather than being scared. “Is that a plane?” he asks his daughter as a bomber buzzes above them. “Yes, a bomber plane!” she says before they hear the boom of an airstrike and both begin to laugh.

However, the need for strong family support also comes at a moment when parents and guardians are the most thinly-stretched, many under intense pressure to provide for their children and relatives. “This caregiver stress can lead to relationships that are far less nurturing, and can [even] lead to violence between caregivers and their children,” el-Khani said. 

Safe places where children could find community support or simply distract themselves from ruminating on the circumstances of their displacement, like schools, are mostly unavailable due to the lack of resources. “One hundred and eighty schools in Idlib have gone out of service since August 2019,” said Mustafa Haj Ali, the media spokesman for the education directorate of Idlib, which is under the authority of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)-affiliated Syrian Salvation Government (SSG).  

About 120 schools were closed when the government captured parts of southern Idlib, while the remaining schools were transformed into centers to accommodate IDPs fleeing government forces, according to Ali.

Further, the education sector lost 65% of its funding after the European Union and Chemonics, a US development contractor, cut their aid when the sector came under the control of HTS, which is designated internationally as a terrorist group.

This continued interruption in education and psychological trauma can have permanent effects on the development and long-term well being of children. “Children that witness war and live through displacement are at risk of compromising the development of cognitive and socioemotional abilities that inhibit their ability to thrive and become healthy, happy, peaceful adults,” el-Khani explained. 

“Childhood experiences of lengthy stress affect brain architecture, leaving lifelong implications for physical and psychological well-being. The impact of extended stress may even extend to subsequent generations, leading to the intergenerational transmission of trauma,” she said, suggesting that even if the nine-year-long civil war were to end tomorrow and its destruction repaired, its bloody legacy would continue to haunt its youngest victims. 

Nothing to offer but advice

What little aid is offered focuses on the immediate, physical needs of IDPs, such as providing food, blankets, and shelter. “There’s nothing for the children, just a quick [aid] response for families,” Mahmoud Shamally, an IDP in the town of Atme in northern Aleppo, told Syria Direct

BINAA, a development organization active in northwest Syria, seeks to support children by providing tents, blankets, heaters, and fuel to displaced families, according to an employee in the organization, Safaa al-Shami. The organization also “distributed 5,000 sets of winter clothing” to children in the area. 

Though humanitarian groups have called for a cessation of hostilities in northwest Syria to protect civilians, their ability to help is restricted by limited access to the small sections of Idlib and Aleppo provinces along the Turkish border where IDPs are concentrated. 

The extreme violence of the situation has rendered even international organizations almost powerless. If exposed to bombing or shelling, a photo from an emergency Telegram group set up by the ICRC advises to “lie on your back, grab your head, cover your ears and bring your knees to your chest.”

This article reflects minor changes made on 2/18/2020 at 12:33 pm.

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