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photos of middle eastern children

The Children of War

and the Dreams They Dream

Cat Carter

Available languages: Deutsch


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Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, The Hymn, 1904–1905

Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis: The Hymn

Konstantinas Čiurlionis had a distinctive talent makes him difficult to classify into any one school; some have called him a symbolist, while others point to his role as a pioneer of abstract art.

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  • Salli Martlew

    Brave, sad, tragic. Who would have thought that with all this evidence, all our history and all our enlightened governments and people we still allow this to happen.

  • Edward A. Hara

    It is hard to read such stories without wanting to scream in rage and sorrow. It is hard for me to relate to such pain and such acts of degradation. I keep finding myself wondering why the whole world doesn't stop until this violence is put to an end.

  • Sheila Brown

    What can I say. It is all so horrific and so unbelievable, to us, that human beings can do such barbaric [not strong enough!] things to their own people. Thank you Cat for sharing these stories. I can only hope that as many people as possible, who can perhaps do something, read them!!!

  • Susana Ladan

    Very painful reading. Thank you for opening my eyes to the torture and the hardship these people are having to face daily. Mind blowing stuff !!!

“Why are you asking me about access to food and water in my country when I have seen my friends executed in front of me? Why don’t you ask about that?”

–Hassan, age fourteen

Fourteen-year-old Hassan’s question caught me off-guard. It was early in Syria’s civil war, and I was talking with refugee children on the Syria-Lebanon border, hoping to discern their needs. I thought I knew what I’d hear about: long bread queues, dirty drinking water, fear of shells landing on your home perhaps, the occasional story of loss.… But nothing prepared me for what I heard. In the maelstrom of war, violence is meted out by adults – but children get hurt.

International law bans recruitment of children in armed conflict. Yet worldwide, up to 300,000 children are used. Some are forced to fight, lay mines, or carry weapons. Others become spies or messengers. Children may be captured and imprisoned if suspected – or if parents are thought likely to pay for their release.

Those not directly involved suffer too, because the health infrastructure is an early casualty in any war. Hospitals tend to focus on getting fighters back to the frontline; mothers and children take lower priority. Even where this is not the case, when healthcare facilities are destroyed or short-staffed and supplies have run out, it is extremely difficult for doctors and nurses to give adequate care. In Syria, an estimated 60 percent of hospitals have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly half the doctors have fled. In 2014 in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, only thirty-six doctors remained of the 2,500 who’d been there before the conflict began.

Even preventable illnesses kill in warzones. If standing in line for immunization means risking being bombed, or if travelling across town means becoming a sniper target, families understandably stay home. The consequence is an unvaccinated generation. Epidemics are spawned in the crowded, dirty conditions that war creates; and where children are exhausted and weakened by stress and hunger, they become further vulnerable. Up to 30 percent of children who contract measles during humanitarian emergencies are likely to die.

Schools, like hospitals, are protected under international law, yet in recent conflicts, schools have been deliberately targeted. Warring groups have discovered that aiming a tank at a school is exceptionally effective – few villagers will continue any protest in face of so dire a threat. And if a school is turned into a place to store weapons or fire missiles from, the adverse impact is double: the building cannot be used for education, and it loses civilian status under international law.

On behalf of Save the Children, I’ve stayed in a number of war-torn countries as well as in refugee camps on their borders. My role is to listen to teenagers and children, and to record what they tell me. I sometimes wish I could dismiss their accounts as wild imaginings. I can’t. I’ve seen torture scars on nine-year-olds and bullet wounds on ten-year-olds. I’ve listened to youngsters describe how it feels to be part of a human shield or to collect their siblings’ body parts from the street. Mothers have shown me photos of their dead children. I’ve watched proud men weep.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget what I have seen and heard. That is as it should be. I don’t want to forget.

I relate several instances here. I’ve changed the individuals’ names, because it took great courage for each to share his or her experiences with me, and I do not want any to be harmed as a result.

Giving these children a voice is what drives me. Even if their stories are not widely heard, I have an obligation to pass them on. At least these children’s accounts are now on record. They are part of history.

photo of child in Jordan Hassan, age fourteen, lives with his parents and brothers in a single tent in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. Sixty-five percent of the camp residents are children. Photograph by Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children
Contributed By Cat Carter

Over the last seven years, Cat Carter’s work with Save the Children, the international relief organization, has taken her to Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Recently she has been recording the stories of children in Syria, South Sudan, Gaza, and eastern Ukraine. She lives and blogs in London.

Fadi is ten when I speak with him in a camp outside Syria; he was nine when his village came under siege. With his father away, Fadi became man of the house. His mother tells me he insisted on fetching the family’s food and water, even when bullets were flying. He shrugs. “Some children get afraid and hide or cry. Others are like me.” He is nonchalant, but I sense that he is pleased to have his courage acknowledged.

Although Fadi did his best, supplies ran out. With no safe routes in or out of the village, families were trapped between armed men and hunger. “People kept trying to leave in groups of maybe ten or twenty. Larger groups would be killed. There was a crossing we called the ‘death journey.’ It was potluck whether or not you would be shot going through. You might get across – or you might not. It was so difficult and dangerous; our hearts were racing until we got here.”

“Some children get afraid and hide or cry. Others are like me.”

I ask Fadi what his village was like before he left. “I have seen many bodies – in the streets, thrown outside homes, even in the river. When they see a child, they shoot without hesitating. Some people you just never find.

“They aimed missiles toward our school. When the missiles hit, they destroyed half the building. I was not at school that day, but I saw it burning.”

Fadi says he wants to talk about these things, and words pour from him. But then he adds that he is certain I will never understand. “Honestly, if I told you what Syria was like, and what those men have done to us, you would not believe me.”

photo of Lebanese child Fadi, age ten, plays war games with his friends at the home in the Lebanese town where he and his family arrived a month before. Photograph by Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children

When I meet Nada in Gaza during the 2014 conflict there, she is five years old. But she has lost her ability to speak, and nightmares prevent sleep. She cries almost constantly.

Nada’s father, Ahmad, takes me down the shrapnel-strewn steps of their home, gesturing at a blue bicycle under the stairs. I’m perplexed – it’s just an old bike…Ahmad speaks in rapid Arabic. When bombs started falling two weeks ago, he hurried his pregnant wife and two of his five daughters under these stairs to be safe from falling debris, moving the bike out of the way. Then he rushed upstairs for his other three daughters.

Pausing a long moment, Ahmad points at the door behind me. I turn and see shrapnel holes big as dinner plates. I turn slowly back, realization dawning: There are matching holes behind the bicycle; the same shrapnel had torn through his wife and daughters.

Ahmad can’t forgive himself for hiding them here. The bike was unharmed.

The two girls, age three and thirteen, died immediately; their mother took longer. Ahmad has only just finished cleaning up under the stairs. He’s put the bike back, because – he shrugs sadly – he doesn’t know what else to do with it.

Of his surviving daughters, two remain in the hospital with severe injuries, while Nada is physically unhurt but emotionally broken.

Ahmad asks my advice. What can he say to Nada to make things right again for her?

photo of orphan child in Gaza Nada, age five. Her mother and two sisters were killed in an airstrike on their home in Gaza. Photograph by Anas Baba / Save the Children

Eleven-year-old Omar argued with his cousin Fatima. She was nine, and the two of them had been playing together at Omar’s home that morning. Fatima ran home, upset by their quarrel. Soon after she arrived back home, a shell hit her house. It killed the entire family.

Omar believed Fatima’s death was his fault. If they hadn’t argued…If he hadn’t upset her…If, if, if …

Omar is not the only child carrying this kind of weight; too many think they are somehow to blame for the tragedies around them. For a whole year, Omar was unable to speak of his torment. Only after numerous conversations with Save the Children’s team, and group sessions with other children, did he start to shake his feeling that he was to blame for Fatima’s death.

Even now I can give little detail because he finds it so difficult to discuss his story – and I do not want to make it harder for him, so I do not press.

photo of Lebanese  refugee children Omar, age eleven, lives with his family in the Za’atari refugee camp, Jordan. “I was so scared my tongue was frozen, I couldn’t even talk.” Photograph by Jonathan Hyams / Save the Children

In a camp for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, a mother, Jemilah recounts, “We were hiding in our basement. It was dark because the electricity had been cut. With no phone, we knew nothing of the outside world. No one could bring supplies into our village, and no one could escape either. In those four days underground, my fourteen-year-old son ate only half a piece of bread and drank two glasses of water. Then everything ran out.

“We had a baby with us, my granddaughter Safaa. She was one year old, so my daughter wanted to wean her, but she would cry loudly. We had seen before that a crying baby attracts the attention of armed men; they come to find the baby, and kill the whole family. Every time she cried, my daughter breastfed her, so she would not get us all killed.

“My son said to me, ‘I am a man, I am not afraid.’ But when another family arrived and reported that men were searching basements for families, my son became terrified. He started crying on my shoulder, asking what would happen if we were found. I knew the answer. But I lied. I said I would save him, that everything would be OK.

“Every day more families joined us when their homes were destroyed. It was a large basement – almost a whole floor of the house. By the end there were over a hundred people, still with no food or water. It was desperate. When we realized armed men were approaching street by street, we decided to flee. Not all of us, but many. Our destiny was death if we stayed. We decided not to wait for death to come for us.

“We went out to the street. It was six o’clock in the morning, a new day. We ran to our car. It was a small car, only two doors, and all the children crammed in. There were eight people in the car. My husband, who drove, was the only man. The rest were mothers and small children.

“We turned down a side road to avoid snipers, but what we saw was horror. Whole families that we knew, who had lived in our street and played with our children, were stood against the wall and shot. They were being executed, even the children. We screamed and turned another way. We were shot at, but my husband knew the area and we managed to escape by going down a small track between farms. I don’t know what happened to the other families in the basement.

“There are still many families inside the town. They cannot move; they cannot leave. There is nothing for them. Shops are looted and supplies cannot get in. There is no medicine, no food, no clean water. They cannot get to the farms to take fruit or potatoes. So those families are already dead.

“Tell me that you will tell everyone what you have heard here today.”

“When I think of Syria, all I can see is this – and the mountains of bodies. The night before we fled there was a mass killing; as we were fleeing, we saw bodies, piled up. We saw men using those digger machines to move the bodies because there were too many to bury properly.

“I wish these men doing the killing were from another country, an enemy country. Not this. Not our own people doing this to each other. It’s too much to cope with.

“I am telling you this because these men think there will be no evidence of these massacres. They think the bodies will be destroyed and their crimes will never be known.

“Tell me that you will tell everyone what you have heard here today.”

One young woman, Roha, is too nervous to let me record the interview or name her country. She is twenty-three, soft-spoken but determined. We sit to discuss the conflict’s impact on her family, but the conversation quickly becomes darker.

Roha fled an area in the Middle East known for its heavy fighting. When I assume that was her reason for flight, she shakes her head, and her eyes dart to the men in the room. She asks that they leave, and I feel a creeping sense of foreboding. I’ve had conversations – too many – which demand that men leave the room, and I know what it means.

“Although the fighting was very bad, we could live with it, we could survive. What we could not live with was the constant threat of rape…” Roha trails off. I wait.

Roha says the sexual violence escalated swiftly in her village. One day she emerged after a bout of heavy fighting to find the naked bodies of five girls, all between ten and twelve years old, laid out on the ground – a warning to the community to make no more trouble. It was clear, Roha says, that they had all been sexually assaulted. I don’t ask how she knew. I don’t want to know.

The stories keep coming – one leads to another, and another, and another – a torrent, unstoppable and harrowing. Finally she tells me that she witnessed the sexual assault of a twelve-year-old neighbor through her window. Too terrified to intervene, Roha couldn’t move. She is still deeply ashamed that she didn’t. The act had been a punishment for the girl’s father. As the armed men left, they killed him too.

Once she was sure the men were gone, Roha rushed to help the girl. “She survived. But actually they both died that day, in different ways,” Roha says quietly. “I saw this with my own eyes. I can never stop seeing it now.”

By now she is in tears. I sit beside her, holding her hand. What else can I do?

Roha composes herself. Suddenly she erupts in anger: at those men for what they did, at herself for what she didn’t do. And at her community for refusing to talk about it, for burying such incidents through a sense of shame.

“This is the big issue – but no one will talk about it. Why? Why! Because we are ashamed? Let us instead shame those who do this!” She strikes her hand on the concrete floor, bracelets jangling.

The men re-enter. Abruptly, Roha stands, brushing away tears. She looks at me for a long minute. “Would you like some tea?” she asks.

photo of Jordanian refugee child Muna, age five, and Tamer, age three, escaped from Syria into Lebanon with their mother Laila after armed gangs in Syria threatened to kill the family. They hope they will find their father, who fled Syria the previous year to avoid being forced to fight. “We used to live in a small village on the mountain,” Laila said. “We owned a big farm, greenhouses, tractors, and a harvester.”She and her children now live in an abandoned cowshed. Photograph courtesy of Save the Children

Wael, a Syrian lad in a Lebanese camp tells me, “I was arrested with hundreds of others. They separated the children. At sixteen, I was the oldest. I can’t tell you how many we were, but there were many. We were forced together into a cell. There was nowhere to go – there wasn’t even a toilet, just a hole in the floor. If they overheard us talking, we were beaten. So we didn’t talk. All we heard was screaming, crying, and then silence.

“There were thirteen or fourteen children whose parents were ‘wanted’. They weren’t allowed food or water. When it was time to eat, their group was surrounded by armed men who prevented anyone from giving them food. These children were too weak to cry; they just lay on the floor. They were repeatedly beaten with sticks, worse than the rest of us.

Wael now dreams of going back into Syria – to work, somehow, for peace.

“I knew a boy who was part of that group, Ala’a, only six years old. He didn’t understand what was happening. His father was part of a rival armed group and was told his child would die unless he gave himself up. He didn’t give himself up. Ala’a was tortured more than anyone else in that room. He only survived three days, and then he simply died. I watched him die on the floor. They treated his body like he was a dog.

“By then, I wasn’t able to think about anything. I thought I would die in that cell, and I couldn’t see past that. When I left that place, I felt I’d escaped death.

“Now, I feel that no one cares about Syria. No one is helping us, and we’re dying. If there was even one percent of humanity in the world, this wouldn’t happen. I feel like I’m dying from the inside. At least when I die this will be over.”

Wael weeps.

“Torture is not only physical, it’s mental. When you see women and children scream and die, it has an effect. Every Syrian has been devastated by this war. There’s no way I can cope, no way I can turn over a new page. I have seen children slaughtered. I don’t think I’ll ever be OK again…”

Wael doesn’t know what happened to the other children.

When his release was eventually secured by his parents, who paid a steep fee, Wael was adamant that he wanted to return to Syria, to fight. But he has changed his mind – he says he has seen too much death and destruction.

Wael now dreams of going back into Syria to encourage and inspire other children, to bring them aid, to urge them not to lose hope – and to work, somehow, for peace.

Contributed By Cat Carter

Over the last seven years, Cat Carter’s work with Save the Children, the international relief organization, has taken her to Haiti, Indonesia, Kenya, Ethiopia, and the Philippines. Recently she has been recording the stories of children in Syria, South Sudan, Gaza, and eastern Ukraine. She lives and blogs in London.

To tell these stories is not enough, I know. What response could ever be adequate? When families share their experiences with me, I feel honored by their confidence and moved by their courage – yet each time it is also an exquisite pain. Returning from a deployment, I often have nightmares.

On my first day on the job, my boss, Gareth Owen, gave me some advice: Let this work change you. And that is the only conclusion I can offer here. Let these stories change us. Nothing less will do.

Organizations that help children in war zones urgently need our support. They include: