Too much too young: the children of Aleppo
They say you can get used to anything if you have to, and maybe that’s true. But should you have to? With something like the calamitous situation in Syria, people have had to get used to far too much, far too young.
Farida, an obstetrician from Aleppo demonstrates the point. The last woman doing her job in the whole of the besieged eastern half of the city, she's trying to do what she can for 275,000 people trapped by Syrian government forces while she and her husband also look after their eight-year-old daughter. Speaking to the Daily Telegraph recently, Farida talks about how she wants her daughter “to live like other children”:
“Sometimes she tells me, I want to eat a potato. And there is no potato. Sometimes she wants an ice-cream and there is no ice cream. She wants to go to school and most of the days the schools are closed because the warplanes are bombing. I just want her live like other children in the world.”
Instead she’s living like other children in east Aleppo. There are something like 100,000 children in her situation. So, apart from the comparatively well-known children - like Omran Daqneesh, “the boy in the ambulance”, or Bana Alabed, the girl live-tweeting from Aleppo – that’s a huge number of incredibly vulnerable young people whose stories very few people know.
In just one recent four-week period (mid-September to mid-October) something like 120 children were killed by the barrel bombing and air strikes in east Aleppo. That’s an average of four or five children killed every day. In just east Aleppo. It's an absolute tragedy and nothing can justify it. The wider situation for children in Syria is beyond bleak. Thousands have already been killed (there don’t even seem to be accurate figures), around 2.7m are not going to school (there have been thousands of attacks on school buildings), and something like eight million children have been growing up knowing nothing but conflict. What a generational disaster.
It's this sheer, unforgivable horror that has prompted the latest round of desperate rallies and demos like last Saturday’s Rally for Aleppo in London, with teddy bears piled up outside Downing Street calling for greater governmental action to stop the slaughter. Similarly, there were blood-stained teddy bears in Berlin a couple of days before. People just want this to stop.
With those 120 east Aleppo children killed in four weeks (not to mention some 280 or so adults also killed), the overwhelming majority (about four-fifths) of the attacks that killed them were carried out by Russian war planes. It’s Russia not the Syrian government that has recently been pulverising east Aleppo. Russia’s record of indiscriminate bombing in Syria, including of hospitals and other medical facilities, is now widely documented. So quite what the bombed and desperate people of east Aleppo make of Sergei Lavrov’s talk of Russia’s “goodwill gestures” concerning so-called humanitarian corridors is ... anyone’s guess.
Meanwhile, what is the average resident of east Aleppo likely to think of the Syrian army using loudspeakers to broadcast this message?:
“We guarantee a safe exit. Seize the opportunity and save yourself. An appeal to our people ... we will extend every help from shelters to hot dishes and facilities that offer you medical treatment.”
Save yourself. All the more threatening because it comes in the guise of a goodwill message, this chilling warning seems to presage a further onslaught of even greater proportions.
And this may indeed be coming. As the analyst Shiraz Maher points out, Russia’s strategic commitment to Syria suggests it will stop at nothing to get what it wants in this conflict. Its endgame is likely to be some kind of “total victory” where Bashar al-Assad retains power and each village, town and city is gradually - month by grinding month - brought under the control of the Syrian army or its proxies. Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has been talking about “just two options: Assad sitting in Damascus or the Nusra [Jabhat al-Nusra/Jabhat Fateh al-Sham] sitting in Damascus”.
What this all means for Syria’s civilian population, including its children, is frightening. Depressingly enough, it feels as if there could be a lot more suffering to come.
One of the people featured in the Daily Telegraph article I mentioned at the beginning of this blog is Abdulkafi al-Hamdo, a 31-year-old English teacher and activist in east Aleppo. In a tweet the other day he shows us a video of himself and the seven-year-old girl Bana Alabed, both shown speaking to the world in their charmingly imperfect English. The shy little girl smilingly says “I am Bana from Aleppo”. How much longer is she going to be smiling and speaking to the outside world like this …?
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