Suffering children of Syria have known nothing but war
Published 19/03/2016 | 02:30
Five years ago this week, the first mass protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad erupted in Deraa, a town near Syria's southern border with Jordan. The rallies were sparked after local schoolboys were detained and tortured by Assad's security forces. Their crime? Scrawling "Your turn, doctor" in red paint on their school wall. The reference was to Assad, an ophthalmologist. Two of his fellow dictators in the region, Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisia's Ben Ali, had just stepped down after unprecedented demonstrations swept both countries.
In Libya, Gaddafi also looked vulnerable as a Nato-led intervention began, following a popular uprising.
In the eyes of Assad, these were dangerous days, and his notorious security apparatus responded accordingly. Regime forces began opening fire on demonstrators, and rounding up leaders of the quickening protest movement.
Some of the opposition took up arms and formed a loose front that included Islamist fighters and more moderate elements.
As the uprising tipped into civil war, it began to draw in external actors including Russia, Iran, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as the brutal militants of what later became known as Isil.
Today, Syria is a bloody stage for a regional and global proxy war with a dizzying cast of characters.
The tremors from its terrible war - whether in terms of the exodus of refugees or the threat from Isil - are felt in neighbouring countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan and further beyond into Europe.
The story of the Deraa schoolboys has now passed into lore, but if the suffering of children helped trigger the uprising in 2011, it has continued to be one of the saddest facets of Syria's tragedy.
Over the past five years, eight million children have required humanitarian assistance, and 2.4 million children have become refugees, according to new data released by the UN children's fund, Unicef. Among the worst affected are those living under sieges on civilian areas.
This tactic has been used by regime forces, opposition fighters and Isil. In recent months, images of emaciated children living in besieged districts have caused revulsion, bringing Syria's conflict back into the headlines.
"Twice as many people now live under siege or in hard-to-reach areas compared with 2013," Unicef said. "At least two million of those cut off from assistance are children, including more than 200,000 in areas under siege."
The UN agency expressed concern about the increasing number of children - including girls, and many under-15s - being recruited as combatants on all sides of the conflict.
It noted that 2.9 million children inside Syria and more than 800,000 outside were under five years old and had therefore known nothing but war in their short lives. More than two million children inside the country and 700,000 outside it were not receiving any education.
Many talk of this as Syria's lost generation. They are the children with haunted faces I have seen in refugee camps on the Turkish border or selling roses late at night on the streets of Beirut.
Traumatised by war, their lives completely upended and their future uncertain, this is a generation that will pose profound challenges to the region in the years and decades to come.
A report by a collection of humanitarian agencies including Oxfam and Care International said that last year was the worst of the conflict so far. It estimated that at least 50,000 people had been killed during that time, and the number living under siege across Syria had doubled.
The precise death toll caused by Syria's unravelling is unknown - the UN stopped counting in 2014 - but at least 250,000 people have died, with some estimates putting it as high at 470,000.
In the midst of the horror, there are some recent - albeit slight - glimmers of hope. A ceasefire brokered with the assistance of the US and Russia, and the recent pledge by Moscow to at least begin withdrawing from Syria, has led to some optimism.
The ceasefire, initially treated with much scepticism, has resulted in a drop in violence, even if bombardments continue in some parts of the country.
Embarrassingly for a regime that has sought to reduce its opponents to a jumble of dangerous jihadists, the truce has resulted in the return of peaceful anti-government protests - in numbers not seen for some time due to fears of aerial attack - in several opposition-held areas.
UN-brokered talks aimed at resolving the conflict will resume next week, though major stumbling blocks between the two sides - not least the question of what happens to Assad - remain.
Ordinary Syrians are caught between tentative expectations and fears of heightened fighting if the ceasefire falls apart.
With more than seven million displaced inside and 4.8 million fled from its borders, Syria is a country where few dare to hope.