Imagine a childhood where sudden death and extreme violence were your idea of normal. Many of us would be driven insane by a few seconds of the hellish scenes circulating in their traumatized imaginations. Is it any wonder that so many Syrian children are exhibiting symptoms of chronic trauma?
A new Save the Children study, “Invisible Wounds,” detailing the effects of conflict on Syrian children, will be one of the most disturbing documents you ever read. These are testimonies of children who have seen everything they love torn apart — who have never lived a single day of security. “I would be confused if I didn’t hear or see airstrikes, because they happen so often,” said Alaa in the report.
Can we talk about “epidemic” levels of depression? Half of those assessed by Save the Children experienced “regular or constant feelings of grief or extreme sadness.” Among the relatively lucky children in refugee camps outside Syria, 44 percent display symptoms of depression. In the Middle East, there is a lack of recognition of the complexities of mental illness.
Traumatized young people risk being written off as “crazy,” never getting the help and empathy they urgently need. Such is the longevity and ferocity of the conflict that institutions for the deaf are inventing new vocabulary to encompass the proliferation of militias, weapons and threats. Deaf children should not need to learn the word for “barrel bomb,” “Daesh,” “improvised explosive device (IED)” or “proxy militias.”
Children speak graphically about their desire for vengeance after seeing loved ones slaughtered. A high proportion of children exhibit uncontrollable aggression, with increased incidence of bullying, domestic violence and drug use. The report is full of heart-breaking testimonies of how these children try to rationalize the insanity all around them.
“His dad was killed in a car bomb,” said a social worker. “They tried to explain to the child that now your dad is a martyr and he is going to paradise, so the child thought that if he died he would see his dad. He hung himself with a scarf.”
The recent Oscar win for the “White Helmets” documentary is rare recognition of the people putting their lives on the line to help Syria. However, the Syrian massacre cannot be simply delegated to a few brave individuals and forgotten about.
This crisis is our crisis. Even if we fail to acknowledge our moral responsibility, the practical consequences of our inaction — terrorism, a refugee crises, trade disruptions and the export of instability — should be obvious to everyone.
There have been attempts to demonize refugees, as if every Syrian citizen entering the US is a potential Daesh member. This is obviously nonsense. However, the failure to intervene on behalf of these child victims sows the seeds of trauma, hatred and vengeance that will come back to haunt us in ways we can scarcely imagine.
While Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Tehran-backed militias are directly complicit in this genocide, the international community has scarcely lifted a finger to halt the carnage.
I am supposed to be a hardened international correspondent, but I was in tears at a recent Channel 4 documentary filmed by the exceptional Waed Al-Kateab, in which two boys grieve for their little brother killed by a bomb while they were out playing.
This grief is multiplied a thousand-fold across this broken nation, with little sign of an end. Parents see their children starving, injured and traumatized, and feel helpless, living with the possibility that an air-raid could end their lives. Fathers fear going to buy food and coming back to find nothing left.
“My son wakes up afraid in the middle of the night. He wakes up screaming... A child was slaughtered in front of him, so he started to dream that someone is coming to slaughter him. When a child witnesses a beheading, how could he not get afraid?”
It is impossible to read these testimonies without feeling angry. Nations expend more effort building walls to keep these children out than trying to broker peace. While Iran, Russia, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Tehran-backed militias are directly complicit in this genocide, the international community has scarcely lifted a finger to halt the carnage.
US President Donald Trump may believe that travel bans, walls and bombing campaigns can defeat terrorism, but we will be living with the consequences of our failure in Syria for generations to come.
Children are the raw resource that secures a nation’s future prosperity, as teachers, doctors and entrepreneurs. Syrian children are being neglected, orphaned, brutalized, given a gun before they can read, and left to rot in refugee camps — I can think of no better way to breed a radicalized and dehumanized next generation.
The UN Security Council is paralyzed, and Western powers have abandoned the rebels to their fate. As such, we have the unedifying spectacle of an international community that is as impotent and uncomprehending as the 6-month-old orphan abandoned to fend for itself in a conflict not of its making.
When in five or 10 years we begin to see the real consequences of the traumas heaped upon these innocent children — whether manifested as renewed instability, terrorism, sectarian atrocities, mass displacement or failed states — the world’s failure to act on their behalf should be on our collective conscience. We did this.
• Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate, a foreign editor at Al-Hayat, and has interviewed numerous heads of state.