Friday, September 13, 2013

Learning to eye the future: Syrian children attempt to rebuild their lives

Death continues to stalk Syrian children even as they mourn already-lost friends and neighbours at funeral services.
Majed Al-Saati not only narrowly escaped being gunned down during a neighbourhood massacre, he then saw his best friend shot through the stomach and die at his feet.
What made the scene all the more poignant was that the pair were part of a funeral procession, paying tribute to 15 fellow villagers struck down in a killing spree days earlier.
The death toll rose yet higher just two days later when a brother of Majed's friend was shot dead outside a mosque where relatives were already praying in grief.
Yet Majed appears both sprightly and defiant, with childlike features seeming younger than his 13 years even as he speaks eloquently - at times gravely - about his ordeals growing up.
Among his classmates is fellow 13-year-old Jamilah Maalouf, with her own gruesome memories of seeing her cousin and uncle dead when a neighbouring field hospital was demolished.
Majed and Jamilah are among thousands of traumatised Syrian children who have endured not only personal tragedies, but gruelling and dangerous escapes across the border.
Some 52.5 per cent of the 716,000 registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon are children, with 200,000 of them thought to be outside school.
Even those who are offered an education in their new surroundings often struggle, since Syrian children were taught in Arabic and English back home yet Lebanese schools prefer Arabic and French.
Yet the Save The Children-backed El Baddawi school in Lebanon's second city Tripoli is dominated by Syrian pupils, many appearing to gradually regain some confidence despite their experiences. 
Majed made it across with his mother Ahlam, 38, and six siblings, though only after the family had endured a series of tragedies.
Two of his uncles, and two great-uncles, were abducted by pro-regime fighters, tortured - with one having a leg cut off - before being left to burn to death in a flaming car.
Majed became accustomed to snipers stationed in nearby buildings, taking potshots at people venturing out of their homes - but the worst violence came on a day tanks arrived.
A lieutenant who accused residents of poisoning local water supplies advanced his tank slowly down the street before opening fire on all around him.
Some 15 people died that day, though Majed managed to take shelter in a neighbour's house - and watched as one of his brothers was shoved to the ground just as a bullet whizzed by.
Majed said: 'He hid for two-and-a-half hours under a car - we thought he was dead, but he later said he didn't call out when we were shouting for him because he didn't want to be caught.
'For the next few days he refused to eat or drink, or do anything - and one night he woke up screaming and trying to attack my father.'
The victims' funerals sparked even more violence, when the graveyard was surrounded by more tanks.
Majed said: 'When I turned my back and started walking away, I heard shouting - then I saw the tanks were shooting at the graveyard and people started falling on top of each other.
'Suddenly a bullet came through my friend's back and through his stomach - one second he was talking, then I saw the blood.'
Majed and his father dragged the body to their nearby home but were unable to save him, before having to break the news to the boy's sobbing mother and father.
Their pain was intensified two days later when the victim's older brother was taken out by a sniper while outside the mosque where the family were praying.
Majed said: 'He didn't see the shot - he was hit in the head from behind.'
He was more fortunate, at least, though his family's decision to flee meant several days sleeping in the fields without any cover on their way to the border.
While wishing he could return home, Majed added: 'There's no Syria right now - it's all destroyed. What's happening is so horrific.
'The people there are suffering from a lack of food and basic needs and the army are even cutting down trees and taking away anything that could be used for heating.'
Schoolmate Jamilah has only been attending lessons for a week - but is tentatively starting to reawaken her dream of becoming a teacher.
Still, she remains haunted by images of carnage the day, five months ago, a neighbouring field hospital in Baba Amr was hit by a rocket.
She said: 'We were sitting in our house when we heard a very big explosion. My dad ran to see what was happening and I followed to the sound of the screaming.
'I knew my uncle and my cousin had been helping doctors at the hospital. 
'As soon as I stepped in, I saw many bodies - we couldn't recognise my cousin and uncle at first because of all the blood, but they were there in pieces.'
Her father swiftly sent her home, where she spent the rest of the day sitting in silence - or occasionally praying - with her brothers and sisters until their parents arrived home.
'My mother was crying and in shock while my father was so upset he wasn't talking to anyone,' she added.
The family moved to her grandfather's house two streets away before making the decision to leave Syria - though her father was arrested before the escape and was unable to join them.
Jamilah added: 'I wish we could be back home with both our parents - that this violence stops. That's what I wish.'
* Some names have been changed to protect the safety of relatives still in Syria.
Save the Children

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