SIX YEARS after the people of Syria rose up against the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, reports of the carnage there can be numbing, from the attacks on hospitals with shrapnel-filled “barrel bombs” to the starvation sieges imposed on hundreds of thousands of civilians. But a report issued this week by the United Nations offers fresh perspective. It concerns Syrian children, who it says suffered their “worst year” in 2016. The losses it chronicles are staggering, and heartbreaking.
At least 652 children were killed, according to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, a 20 percent increase over the previous year. An additional 647 were maimed. Many died in the systematic bombing by the Assad regime and Russia of schools and pediatric hospitals; there were at least 87 attacks on schools and their personnel, and more than 255 children were killed in or around educational facilities.
In one week during the government assault on Aleppo in September, 96 children were killed and 223 injured. In an Oct. 26 attack on a complex of schools in Idlib province, 21 children between the ages of 7 and 17 died; others lost limbs or were blinded. According to the U.N. Syria commission, the schools had more than 2,000 students but stopped functioning “out of fear of future attacks.”
Many children were gang-pressed into the conflict — more than 850, according to UNICEF. Its report said, “Children are being recruited at an ever younger age and are increasingly taking part in combat roles, including in extreme cases as executioners, suicide bombers or prison guards.”
A generation in what was one of the Arab world’s most cultured nations is being lost. UNICEF says 1.7 million children in Syria are out of school, and 2.3 million are living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq — almost half the overall refugee total. Six million kids depend on humanitarian assistance — and they are the lucky ones not trapped in villages and towns that are systematically deprived of food and medicine by government sieges.
Syria’s revolution began with children. A group of boys in the southern town of Daraa who painted anti-government slogans on walls were arrested and tortured, touching off popular demonstrations that started in March 2011 and soon spread to other cities. From the beginning, the Assad regime responded brutally, gunning down peaceful marchers who called for democratic reforms. Six years later, as U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein put it on Tuesday, “the entire country has become a torture chamber: a place of savage horror and absolute injustice.” It is, he said, “the worst man-made disaster the world has seen since World War II.”
Having abandoned feeble attempts to stop the slaughter, Western governments — including the Trump administration — are trying to literally screen it out, blocking the flows of increasingly desperate refugees. Peace talks promoted by Russia and Turkey are going nowhere, while the Assad regime is proclaiming its intention to continue its scorched-earth tactics until it gains control over the entire country. So far, 2017 looks to be another “worst year” for Syrian children.
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