'Children of Syria' - childhood innocence blown to pieces by war exposed in remarkable documentary
Pat Stacey reviews 'remarkable' BBC2 documentary 'Children of Syria'
If it really is true that, as US senator Hiram Warren Johnson claimed in 1928, the first casualty of war is truth, then the second and most grevious is youth. The remarkable documentary, Children of Syria, brought this home forcefully. BBC chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet, bringing her customary compassion tot he film, and director-cameraman Robin Barwell spent six months filming a number of children whose lives have been ruptured by the civil war between the government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, which is now into its fourth year. It's impossible to know for sure how many children trapped on both sides of the conflict have died in that time, but the figure runs into the tens of thousands.
Only one of the children Doucet interviewed, nine-year-old Mariam, who lives in a refugee settlement on the Syrian-Turkish border, has suffered direct physical injury in the conflict. She lost half her leg to a barrel bomb. The others have been damaged in less visible ways which may take longer for them to come to terms with.
This was a film about the terrible physical and emotional price of war paid by the youngest and most vulnerable, but it was also a harrowing story of young minds being twisted and hardened, and of the two most precious gifts of childhood, innocence and trust, being violated and stolen away.
"I'm only a child in age and appearance," said nine-year-old Ezadine, who's from a pro-regime family, "but in terms of morals and humanity I'm not."
Twelve, he said, used to be considered young, but not any more. "Now at 12 you must go for jihad." It's shocking to hear a little boy talk that way. No child should ever have to speak of such things or think about such things.
"You should be playing football, not fighting," Doucet said to Hassan (15), also from a pro-regime family.
"No," he said, "the homeland has called us to defend it, this beloved homeland Syria." Again these sounded like a man's words issuing from the mouth of a child. On the other hand, Hassan is a child who saw his brother being shot dead by a rebel sniper as he crossed a street, so bitterness is to be expected.
Hassan's friend Jalal (14) has also become politicised. He's a good-looking boys but his eyes have seen things that should be beyond his years. Jalal's father is a soldier in a neighbourhood defence force. So was his uncle, before he was "martyred", as Jalal put it.
Jalal is ready, if necessary, to be "martyred" too. "Now children talk about politics. We're ready to die for our country," he said, claiming former friends on the other side of the divide have been "brainwashed" by the rebels.
INevitably perhaps, for it is usually men who are quickest to wage wars, the girls Doucet talked to were gentler and spoke more of their lost childhoods.
Eight-year-old Barra, whose family fled the besieged city of Homs, for two years a rebel stronghold, eventually returned to the house where she watched her brother and mother die, the latter decapitated. It had been stripped clean and looted.
Meanwhile, Dadd (11) was overjoyed to find a school where she could resume her education. She wants to be a doctor so she can help children. She has dreams in which she sees her friends. Some are alive, some dead; some have had their heads cut off. No child should dream things like that.
One of the finest documentaries of the year.
Children of Syria **** (Available on the BBC player)