In one of the over-crowded camps in North East Syria, a sixteen year old girl sits opposite me and, speaking in a lowered voice, says : “I was raped and forced to get married. Then I saw my father beheaded. I finally escaped ISIS but now my country won’t take me back.”
These are the words of Seva, and her despair is palpable. She was just eleven years old when she was taken from her home country to Syria with her sister Zahra, who was fourteen at the time. The girls were then wrenched from their father. The next time they saw him was in an ISIS propaganda video. He was beheaded on camera.
With no guardian to make their objections, both girls were judged to be old enough to marry foreign fighters, far older than them. They had never met these men and could not speak the same language. Three months after she was forced to marry, Zahra realised she was expecting a baby, “when I fell pregnant, I was still playing with a skipping rope. I didn’t understand what was happening to my body“.
For Zahra and Seva, their delicate formative years were defined by relentless violence and trauma. The sudden shock of entering a warzone and being handed to strangers to be abused is a memory that reduces Zahra to tears. She cries as she recalls the terror of “watching missiles falling from my window every day.” After finally escaping ISIS control, they found themselves in an over-crowded camp where conditions are appalling, and tensions run high.
Whilst we are talking, Zahra’s gaze falls to her four year old son sits in the dust silently, playing with a stick. “I just want a normal life. No more horror. I don’t think there is anything more beautiful than that.” Seva sits next to her and adds quietly that she just wants to go home and see her mum.
Dire and deadly conditions
I don’t think I am easily shocked. I’ve worked in some of the world’s worst crises – Yemen, Syria, South Sudan, Somalia. But I don’t think I’ve ever seen conditions as appalling as the over-crowded camps in North East Syria where the foreign families are kept in segregation. More than three hundred children have died in the camps or en route. There is something deeply horrifying about the ways children are reported to have died – like the reports of a four-year-old boy drowning in a faecal pit and a seven-year-old burning to death after his tent was set alight.
From what I witnessed, the over-crowded camps didn’t seem conducive to survival, let alone emotional recovery. I saw many children who had serious injuries – missing limbs, burns, shrapnel scars – without access to the healthcare they need. I met a boy with an amputated leg who was forced to hop across the camp as he had no crutches. Another girl arrived at the camp with shrapnel embedded in her stomach and told me of her deep frustration with endless sleepless and pain filled nights as she waited for healthcare. Her anguish would eventually drive her to take a rusty razorblade from the floor and cut the shrapnel out of her stomach herself.
Nonetheless, the invisible wounds of psychological damage were no less urgent and far more abundant than the ones I could see. We run children’s centres all around the world . They are often filled with laughter, games and learning. But in the annex of one of the camps, the first child I saw was a small boy who was sitting in the corner, facing the wall, refusing to speak to or play with anyone. He was around four years old, and had not uttered a word since he came. We don’t know whether he had stopped speaking due to trauma or he’d just never learned to talk. We may never know who he is or what he has seen.
Looking to the future
But even in this desolate place, the impact care and support has on children’s behaviour and disposition was visible. Further inside the children’s centre, groups of children were drawing pictures. I was told that when they first arrived, children generally drew graphic depictions of life under ISIS rule with dead bodies, beheadings and medieval torture methods. As time went by, they started drawing colourful drawings of their home countries, with trees, rivers and mountains. The teacher said that most of these children had never seen landscape like this but had heard that it was like paradise – that there was no explosions, hunger or violence there. They yearned for safety, peace and life outside the dustbowl of the over-crowded camp.
This was before the start of military operations which has brought yet more chaos to families in North East Syria. But the over-crowded camps where the vast majority of children are staying are still there and can still be reached.
In recent days the UK Government has said they have a duty of care to British children in Syria and they don’t want to let ‘innocents get caught in the crossfire’. It’s now time to prove it. There’s a lot going on in British politics right now and an election around the corner, but we can’t let innocent children fall through the cracks as a result. Not when we know we have the chance to save their lives and bring them home, to overcome the catalogue of horrors they have endured in their young lives.
I am struck by a thought that I’ve had time and time again, the world over: children are resilient. They want to play and learn, and just be children again. And they want to grow up to be doctors, teachers and football players. With the right care they bounce back, recover and amaze us. They just need the chance. These children are no different, no matter what they’ve been dragged into by the decisions of adults.
The last child I met in the camp was fifteen-year-old Shadi, who was eager to tell me all about his Save the Children caseworker, Rami. “Rami is so caring; I only ever see goodness coming from him. I was so surprised to find kindness in an adult. I wasn’t expecting that there would be people in the world who want to help children like me. With Rami by my side, I don’t feel so afraid anymore.”
Leaving the annex
When we were leaving the camp, a European woman blocked my way, pulling on my shirt. She was in her early twenties and wept in desperation telling me that her baby would die there if I didn’t take him. “My son should not pay for his parents’ mistake. Please. Let him come home.”
This woman’s words have stayed with me ever since. These children are innocent, they’ve been swept up in horrors beyond their control. It was hard to leave these children whose short lives have been so full of violence and fear, knowing that their futures are uncertain . It’s even harder now this corner of Syria has been plunged into further chaos and the window to safely bring them home is closing.
In over-crowded camps in North East Syria, there is a group of British children who are very far away from home. The UK Government still has a chance to help these children recover and give them a future. I hope they take it.
All names changed to protect identities.