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Living in a Box, Eating Weeds: Syria's Children on the Edge

Published: 03-12-14

DAMASCUS, Syria — They live in a wooden box at the side of a road: six children, their mother and father.

The children’s shoes are broken, their hands dirty, their faces smiling but tired of a life lived on the edge, almost literally. They don’t have money. They don’t go to school and they haven’t for two years. They eat food handouts to survive.

It’s not the way life used to be for the children of the Al Kilzi family. They had a house, not fancy, but theirs. Their father worked. And their older sister, 14-year-old Hayat, lived with them.

Then Syria’s war smashed their lives apart in the dangerous Yarmouk district of the capital, Damascus. They were driven from their home. Hayat was kidnapped by armed men, and their father had a stroke because he couldn’t raise the ransom to get her back. He now lies virtually paralyzed on the matted floor of the wooden box. Doctors have told his wife Feyrouz that he will never recover.

Three of his children stroke his hair and his arms as Feyrouz laments her lost life.

“Before we had freedom,” she tells me, "now it is like living in an open prison." She weeps, recalling her lost daughter, showing me her passport-sized photograph. “I think of her all the time; if she’s hungry, or thirsty, or cold. My heart is broken.” Watching her cry amid the wreckage of her life, in a wooden box, her husband at her feet, was pitiful.

Her eldest son Muhammed is a serious-looking boy, and no wonder.

"I had a real home,” he tells me. “Now we live in this hut, covered in plastic. It leaks when it rains." He glances at his father. "I love him so much" he says quietly. Every week he collects the medicine his father needs from the United Nations. His younger brother, keen to be heard, says, "God knows when this will end."

They are the children of a war that never ends. Their three years enduring it is a lifetime for any child.

Yarmouk has seen heavy fighting for two years and is now under the control of the Nusra Front, a branch of Al Qaeda.

Once I could get to its entrance. Now noone can, especially not the U.N. workers who distributed food for a few days last month.

This is now the reality of life for seven of Syria’s children, the children of Yarmouk; lives lived on the street or in the hands of kidnappers, childhoods brutalized, all innocence lost. And yet they rank among the lucky ones.

At least 10,000 Syrian children have been killed in the war. Tens of thousands more have been injured, many severely, with limbs lost, spinal injuries, whole body burns and all the many horrific legacies of war. It is little wonder that the U.N. says this is perhaps the most dangerous place on earth to be a child, with the highest casualty rates for children ever recorded in the region.

Millions of children, like those of the Al Kilzi family, need outside help to survive. They are the children of a war that never ends. Their three years enduring it is a lifetime for any child.

THE FAMILY WHO ESCAPED HELL

"We were in Hell," Mohammed says firmly. "Now, it's better than Hell, but that's all."

We are talking in a simple flat that is a sanctuary for a family that has survived every weapon modern man has made to kill with.

Mohammed-Kheir Alkhousi’s three boys used to sleep perfectly. Now, every night, they wake up and come into their parent’s bedroom for comfort. They are still having nightmares, still haunted by the things they have seen and heard.

"They are shaking, as they were then, asking me, 'Dad are we going to die?,'" says Mohammed. They lived in a suburb of Damascus that was hit in a chemical weapons attack seven months ago, an area that was rebel-held and the center of a brutal war for almost two years.

"They've seen terrible things: bombings, shooting, people screaming," says Mohammed. "Their lives were turned upside down.”

The children and their parents fled for their lives, and they’ve lived ever since in a borrowed flat. No sooner had they arrived at their new home and school than the two older boys survived a car bomb outside their playground. Eleven year-old Abdul Majid says he will never forget it. It was so loud he first thought a plane had crashed in the street outside. He can still hear it in his dreams. His 9-year-old brother Mohammed says he will try to forget it.

A week ago, mortars flew by them, the scream of the rockets terrifying them before they landed nearby. Their father breaks down explaining all they left behind, all they are still suffering and his fears for their future.

"I worked 20 years to buy a house for them. They left their toys and books, everything. I lost my job, but I have them. Thank God they are still alive," he says. I ask the three boys if they have a wish. They all say, without hesitating, to be back home.

THE ORPHANS WHO ATE WEEDS AND GRASS

In the multi-colored room of an aid center, some of Syria’s war-scarred children have a few hours when they can be children again, lost in play, in drawing, in music. They are quiet, perhaps quieter than children should be, but they are contented.

One group is very quiet. They are the seven children of one family. And they are orphans. Their mother disappeared and their father, too, is missing, presumed dead. They got out of the besieged suburb of Yarmouk a month ago.

Mohamed is 12 but looks much smaller. It is soon clear why. "We lived on grass. We ate grass. And weeds," he tells me, his voice childlike yet strong. "We went out in the morning to collect firewood to boil the weeds. It tasted bitter. In the end our bellies were big." It's a sign of severe hunger.

His 7-year-old twin sisters Esma and Doua hardly speak above a whisper. They say they didn't have juice for a year, or milk, or candy. Nothing. Rajib is the oldest boy. He didn't eat meat for a year and dreamed of chicken and rice and ice cream.

Rajib shows me a shrapnel wound in his arm. "When we tried to get out of Yarmouk, snipers fired at us and I was hit." When they eventually got out during a rare ceasefire, led away by their aunt who now cares for them, they ate food they hadn't tasted over a year. And then they vomited. It was too much for their swollen, malnourished stomachs. When they drank water with sugar, they had diarrhea.

In Syria, the angels have been murdered.

Most of all they just want to play. Rajib says, "I miss my father," but the others keep quiet. I felt they were children who had terrible experiences locked up inside them. They had clearly seen things no child should see, but they couldn't, wouldn't talk about them.

I'm not qualified to call them traumatized but they have lived amid the most brutal kind of warfare, a siege aimed at shelling and starving a civilian population to the point of surrender. They have no parents, but they are alive. They have each other. And sometimes in Syria, that is enough.

Around them, and encouraging them to do whatever they want, are volunteers not much older than the children. In any country, especially those torn apart by war, the volunteers of the Red Cross or Red Crescent are angels of mercy. In Syria, the angels have been murdered.

Thirty-four Red Crescent workers have been killed trying to help Syria’s children, its wounded, its besieged, the victims of its savage war. But hundreds of young people continue to sign up to help their people and their country. They do their best to help children on both sides, those in rebel areas and in government-held districts. Often, they die at the front-line.

This week Amnesty International estimated that 128 people have died of starvation in Yarmouk since Syria's army tightened the siege of the district last July. Access to food and medicine was cut. Amnesty says that in total, more than 200 people have died of hunger-related illnesses.

The organization accuses the Syrian government of crimes against humanity. There is no question the army is blockading the area to force those inside to surrender or starve. So far, there has been no surrender, only starvation.

THE SCHOOL OF EXILES

It's not just the children of El Buzum school who are exiles, who fled their homes in terror. It's most of the teachers too. So, they understand each other and draw strength from each other.

Before the war, the school had 250 pupils. Now, it's more than four times that. The 1,050 children are so crowded in their playground that when they run around, there's regularly a pile-up, as little bodies fall one on top of another, crushing the ones at the bottom. It's dangerous. But not as dangerous as the lives they've left behind.

I ask in a classroom how many of them ran away from their homes and neighborhoods. Nearly all raise their hands. They've all seen war at close quarters.

Out in the playground I talk to four children, who have lost parents in the fighting. The oldest is Tarek Matamir, a shy but determined boy of 12, who begins to tell me about his father who was killed.

Suddenly the girl beside him, who is ten, bursts into tears. His story has unlocked Rodaina's loss and she weeps uncontrollably for her dead father. Nine-year-old Dana, beside her, also starts to cry. Big tears roll down their cheeks. They share a paper handkerchief, as they share a tragedy, but the tears won't stop.

We don't talk. And little Lilas, the last girl, keeps quiet and doesn't flinch. She, too, has lost her father. Finally she says she knows he's dead but no one told her how he died. I hug the two girls whose bodies are heaving, in spasms of grief. There is nothing more to ask and nothing more to say.

The four children walk away to their classrooms and their friends, trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.

THE CHILDREN CLINGING TO LIFE

Ali Shabaan shouldn’t be in the world right now. He was born amid war, three months premature. He clings to life with tiny arms and hands reaching up from his frail, pink body. His lungs are not completely developed and the doctors can’t guarantee he will survive.

This hospital in Damascus is 50 percent over capacity. A new, sick child arrives every three minutes.

Which is no surprise; he is not in an incubator but lying on the bed of a regular neo-natal ward. He twists and grimaces alongside 10 other tiny babies in a hospital that is scarcely able to cope.

Two out of three of Syria’s hospitals have been either destroyed or damaged in the war. Those that are left are overwhelmed with patients. This one in Damascus is 50 percent over capacity. A new, sick child arrives every three minutes.

As the countryside empties of people, the pressure on Damascus and its clinics is intense. There aren’t enough doctors here, or throughout Syria, to cope with the medical and health crisis the war has caused. As I stand inside the front entrance, I'm almost knocked over in the crush of people trying to get attention for their children.

And these are children desperate for help. Polio had been eradicated in Syria but has now returned. The Syrian American Medical Society estimates that since the start of the war, 200,000 Syrians have died from illness because of a lack of drugs or treatment, tens of thousands of them children.

Add this to the estimated death toll from the war -- more than 140,000 -- and you have a disaster unseen in the Middle East in modern times.

THE MALNOURISHED GENERATION

The children stand in two straight lines for the over-5's. They look perfectly normal but those who know them say they're far from it. "They all have psychological problems," says an official from Syria's Health Ministry. "Bed wetting, aggression, lack of concentration, inability to sleep at night."

They have all been forced to leave their homes in Daraya, one of the deadliest areas of Damascus. It has been bombed and besieged by Syria's army for a year and a half; held by rebels who often took the little food there was for themselves.

The children are malnourished, their growth stunted by the lack of nutrients and vitamins. Which is why they are lining up, waiting for a food handout from the U.N. What they get is a small yogurt pot, filled with a paste, like peanut butter. It's a special mix of supplements and minerals to treat moderate to acute malnutrition.

The pot is enough for a week. But not enough to recover the growth they've lost in their thin limbs and small bodies.

They live now in abandoned buildings and factories in a neighboring suburb. But they haven't escaped the war next door. They can still see and hear the shelling of their old home Daraya. Not long ago more than 20 barrel bombs, filled with explosives and shrapnel landed on their old neighborhood.

It's no wonder the children still can't sleep at night.

First published March 12th 2014, 5:00 am