Monday, March 14, 2016

Syria crisis, five years on - a nation set back decades

‘If you dare give those to Bashar al-Assad, I swear I’ll find you and beat you up.’
Back then the threat seemed jarringly unlikely and would have been laughable had the situation not been so bleak - in retrospect it reflects somehow a relatively simpler time.
The words were not growled by an AK47-toting militant nor patrolling soldier but a knee-high four-year-old anxious not to be caught in an aid worker’s photos beside Lebanon’s Syrian border.
Fear and even desperate aggression from a child were expressed in the context of bogeyman Bashar al-Assad, the man behind an onslaught by rockets, barrel bombs, chemical weapons and shoot-to-kill street thugs.
Since that encounter in Akkar in September 2013, Syrians’ plight has been exacerbated still further - and more convolutedly - by bloodthirsty emergency and surge of Daesh, Russian air-strikes and chaotic ‘peace talks’.
And still the Arab Spring revolt that became a government crackdown that became a gruelling civil war that become a global crisis displays few signs of hope or progress, only the promise of decades more misery...
Children as young as seven are being forced by armed groups to fight in Syria’s civil war which reaches its five-year anniversary on Tuesday, Unicef aid workers say.
As many as 8.4million children are now thought to have been harmed by the civil war which began in March 2011 with Bashar al-Assad’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
One in three Syrian children - an estimated 3.7million - have been born since the crisis began, according to Unicef’s report ‘No Place For Children’.
These include 151,000 born as refugees.
As ceasefire talks involving Assad’s regime and a disparate selection of opposition groups have foundered, recruitment of child soldiers has been surging.
Armed forces targeted those aged between 15 and 17 in the conflict’s earliest years - with only 20 per cent of child soldiers aged under 15 in 2014.
But Unicef researchers found this had leapt to 50 per cent last year - with some of those forced into armed action as young as seven.
They are not only receiving military training but carrying and maintaining weapons, manning checkpoints and evacuating casualties, according to yesterday’s (MON).
Aid workers have also found children as young as three forced to work and girls giving birth at 12 and 13.
Actor and Unicef UK ambassador Michael Sheen, who has just returned from Jordan and Lebanon, told Metro how he was struck by how childlike while mature were the children he met.
Nursing a fabric bracelet bearing his name, made by nine-year-old Za’atari resident Hassan, Sheen told Metro: ‘On the surface they’re getting on with life, playing with other children, running around - they could be kids in Port Talbot, in London.
‘But then you see the rise in child labour, in early marriages for teenage girls, the hands that look like they belong to middle-aged men.’
He was especially struck by the resemblance yet also disparity between his 17-year-old daughter Lily, by ex-girlfriend Kate Beckinsale, and a 16-year-old Za’atari camp inhabitant named Asmahan.
Sheen said: ‘Asmahan was incredibly striking in her red outfit, a very beautiful young woman with an extraordinary charisma and spirit.
‘It made me think about my own daughter, only a year older - yet Asmahan has been forced to leave her home and country, married at 13, physically abused then divorced, and now advising other girls in her camp.
‘And she’s only a year younger than my daughter - that still really strikes me.
‘These memories keep coming back, even back in everyday life in Britain, watching the rugby or eating a croissant here - and I’m glad they do, to keep reminding.’
Dr Peter Salama, Unicef’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said: ‘In Syria, violence has become commonplace.
‘Five years into the war, millions of children have grown up too fast and way ahead of their time.
‘As the war continues, children are fighting an adult war, they are continuing to drop out of school and many are forced into labour.’
Some 2.8million Syrian children are now thought to be out of school, including 700,000 refugees in neighbouring countries.
Aid agencies including Unicef are now calling for an extra £1billion in 2016 for children’s education, improvements to humanitarian access within Syria, and for countries to finally fulfil their entire donor pledges.

A simple graffiti slogan spraypainted on to a school wall five years ago this Tuesday unwittingly set off the murderous conflict described as the worst global crisis since the Second World War.
Six teenagers were arrested and tortured for their act of rebellion against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government in March 2011’s so-called ‘Arab Spring’.
Their ‘offence’ in the southern city of Dera’a was to paint the words ‘Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam’.
This message which had become the popular Arabic slogan across ‘Arab Spring’ revolts translates as ‘The people want the downfall of the regime’.
The teenagers found themselves not only arrested and imprisoned but tortured, prompting a wave of street protests by family, friends and supporters.
These demonstrations were met by Assad and his security forces with a fearsome crackdown soon spiralling into a civil war thought to have killed almost half a million and created more than 12million refugees.
The teenagers originally arrested are believed to have later fled to neighbouring Jordan, hiding for fear of further torture. 
Amnesty International UK’s Syria researcher Neil Sammonds advised some of those arrested and tortured in the earliest days of the revolt against Assad and the regime’s brutal response.
He told Metro: ‘It was quite a step forward - until then most people had been making more reformist calls in Syria but those kids took it further.
‘They were arrested and beaten up, which promoted their friends and families to go out on to the streets in protest - and they were shot out.
‘We then saw widespread use of force by the regime - the security forces clearly had a shoot-to-kill policy.’
Torture victims’ families and friends are risking their own lives every day by smuggling out documents they hope will one day lead to war crimes prosecutions.
Campaign group Human Rights Watch discovered in 2012 evidence of 27 detention centres across Syria, many in the capital Damascus.
Many more are believed to have opened since then.
Among those to have been tortured is mother-of-three Nermine, who told Metro in December how she was arrested after her husband was executed when caught trying to flee the country.
She spent three months being tortured in a Damascus prison, accused of harbouring and nursing rebel fighters.
Torture techniques included suspending inmates upside-down from the ceiling, handcuffed or with hands bound behind their backs, and carrying out beatings for up to three days on end.
‘Bodies would turn blue,’ she said.
‘I assumed I’d never be coming out alive.’
She was only freed when a judge felt persuaded of her innocence, though did warn she faced rearrest and likely death if ever suspected again.
Activists, family and friends continue to smuggle information about those in prison on a daily basis to Amnesty International, who have been barred from the country since 2006.

Mr Sammonds said: ‘Those people are phenomenal - if we can at least get what documentation we can, hopefully one day some individuals might be tried for their horrendous crimes against humanity.’

Britain is second to the United States in the amount of aid offered to Syrian civil war casualties - but one-third of the world’s promised help is still missing.
The UK has pledged £1.08billion for the region since 2012, so far spending £535million of that, according to United Nations figures.
Behind the US, the UK and the European Commission, the biggest donors are Germany promising £901million and Kuwait £720million.
Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia has pledged £208million, Russia £18million and China nothing.
Latest UN figures suggest the world has so far delivered just £7.785billion of the £11.838billion promised since the conflict began.
The UK’s focus has been on helping Syrian refugees still in their home country or in the immediate surrounding nations, rather than those making it to Europe.
Almost half a million people have been killed and 1.9million injured in the past five years in Syria, according to the London-based Syria Centre for Public Research’s latest report last month.
More than 12million have been forced from their homes, with about 7million internally displaced and 4.8million officially registered as refugees in neighbouring countries.
There are thought to be 2.688million Syrian refugees in Turkey, 1.068million in Lebanon, 638,000 in Jordan, 246,000 in Iraq and 119,000 in Egypt.
Pro-Assad forces not only arrested, tortured, executed or ‘disappeared’ supposed rebels in their thousands but also launched incessant rocket and chemical attacks on villages, cities and towns across the country.
Meanwhile sieges have denied food, medicines and other aid to towns and cities including Daraya, Moadamiya and Homs, the western and third largest city now reduced to little more than rubble-strewn ruins.
Atrocities have also been carried out by armed groups fighting the Assad regime.
These include not only Daesh and al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, but also the Free Syrian Army, Islamic Front and the Army of Islam.
Daesh has occupied up to a third of Syria including Raqqa, where the group - also known as Islamic State - has set up their de facto capital under sharia law.
They have launched their own rocket and chemical attacks on besieged areas, enslaving captives and executing Syrian civilians as well as Western hostages such as British aid workers David Haynes and Alan Henning.

Stricken sisters Marwa and Aya are just two of the 2.8million children forced not only out of their homes but their schools by Syria’s civil war.
They and their mother were forced to flee the country when their town was shelled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, their father among the dead.
In fact, their home city of Daraa is the south-western Syrian city where the anti-Assad ‘Arab Spring’ protests - and ferocious regime retaliation - erupted five years ago this Tuesday.
The school they say they loved before then was hit by a rocket and burnt to the ground.
They have been living since then in Jordan’s 80,000-refugee Za’atari camp, where Unicef has been able to help provide some classes for children.
Marwa, 13, said: ‘Life used to be serene - we feared nothing at all.
‘But things have changed dramatically since then. There was no school and no lessons, and bombs started falling near where we lived.
‘My mother was very protective of us because our father had died and there was no one else.’
She hopes to be a lawyer when older, declaring: ‘So that I can defend my country and help all those who have suffered injustice.’
But the turmoil drags on in the meantime.
Marwa said: ‘We didn’t know how long the war would last.
‘I kept crying and telling my mother I wanted to go home.
‘But I felt much better once I went back to school.’
Across the border in Lebanon some schools have been supported enough to offer morning lessons for their own children and afternoon classes for Syrian refugees.
But many still remain outside education, fuelling fears a future Syria will lack much of the technical expertise required for necessary peacetime rebuilding.
At least 40 attacks on schools in Syria were carried out last year and more than 6,000 cannot now been used.
One in four Syrian children still inside the country are thought to be out of education, after 4,000 schools have been destroyed or closed down.
Not only are limited classrooms over-crowded, but many families lack the right papers to enrol.
In surrounding countries refugee children struggle with unfamiliar curricula, unknown languages and often having to fit in with younger age-groups after missing previous years.

No comments: