BOMBS & BEHEADINGS: RAQQA'S CHILDREN SPEAK OUT
Children escaping the Syrian city of Raqqa have told Save the Children about the trauma of living under ISIS and more recently, the military campaign to retake the city.
Monday, 28 August 2017 - 7:58am
Children described a life of unthinkable brutality, having witnessed executions and explosions at close quarters over several years. Beheadings and bombs have become a part of normal life for Raqqa’s children. The charity warns the psychological scars they carry could take years, even decades, to heal.
13-year-old Raashida* said:
“The other day ISIS beheaded people and left their bodies on the ground. We saw this and I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to sleep but I couldn’t when I remembered what I saw. And I wouldn’t sleep, I would stay awake because of how scared I was. Now I sleep normally because no one is getting beheaded here.”
13-year-old Faridah* said:
"If a woman does something wrong ISIS will stone her with stones. And if someone smokes, the fingers of the hand used to smoke are cut off. There is someone, I don't know what he said, but they sewed his mouth. He said something about ISIS and they sewed his mouth! And while they were whipping him, blood came out of his mouth. Poor man."
Besides the daily acts of violence they’ve had to endure, Raqqa’s children also described a life of despair at the lack of opportunities. They recalled being cooped up inside their homes for months on end, unable to play or go to school, with no child-friendly spaces left for them to be children.
Parks and other public spaces have been turned into execution grounds, littered with severed heads and decomposing bodies. In addition, recent reports of airstrikes killing dozens of civilians means families are facing an impossible decision: stay and risk being bombed or leave and risk being shot at by ISIS or stepping on a landmine.
Aoun* (Raashida’s father) said:
“There’s no childhood anymore, children have forgotten. There are no schools anymore, no toys, and even if the children want to go to school they are going to be taught how to fight…but there is no actual education…I have a son who should be in his last year of primary school, yet he still doesn’t know how to read and write.”
In a recent study on the mental health of children escaping ISIS in northern Iraq, Save the Children discovered that many of the children surveyed displayed signs of ‘toxic stress’ – a dangerous state where the body is in a constant ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode. The loss of loved ones was the biggest cause of distress, with a staggering 90% of children surveyed reporting the loss of at least one family member through death, separation during escape or abduction.
The lack of access to communities inside Raqqa makes it difficult to assess the well-being of children still stuck there, but the stories of those who’ve escaped paints a bleak picture. Most of Raqqa’s 300,000 residents have fled the city. By some estimates there are only between 18,000 and 25,000 people left, almost half of them children, as the coalition aims to drive ISIS out following a similar operation in Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.
As the battle for Raqqa intensifies over the coming days and weeks, civilians need to be able to leave safely and not be used as human shields by ISIS nor face bombardment by airstrikes. Protecting children caught up in the horrors of war must be a priority.
Sonia Khush, Syria Country Director, Save the Children, said:
“Children must be able to leave Raqqa without fear of violence or death, or being forced to walk for days through minefields to reach safety.
“It’s crucial that the children who’ve made it out alive are provided with psychological support to help them deal with the trauma of witnessing senseless violence and brutality.
“Raqqa’s children might look normal on the outside but inside many are tormented by what they’ve seen. The children of Raqqa didn’t ask for the nightmares and memories of seeing loved ones die right in front of them. We risk condemning a generation of children to a lifetime of suffering unless their mental health needs are addressed.”
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NOTES TO EDITORS
- More than 271,000 men, women and children have become internally displaced since Operation Euphrates Wrath began in November 2016 (https://www.humanitarianresponse.info/system/files/documents/files/joint_statement_on_ar_raqqa_airstrikes_final_version.pdf)
- 18 of Raqqa’s 24 neighbourhoods are now completely depopulated.
- Overall, the risk of being caught in conflict, forced relocation of civilians in ISIS controlled neighbourhoods, as well as the lack of fresh food and water pose significant threats to the safety and well-being of those remaining in Raqqa.
- Food markets are reportedly only functioning in two neighbourhoods in the city and residents are relying primarily on food stored previously.
- Although many of those who have left the city reportedly hope to return as soon as possible, returns have not been observed thus far and are not expected prior to a de-escalation of conflict and mine clearance.
- Electricity produced by generators is reportedly available for 2-6 hours per day in five of the remaining six populated neighbourhoods in Raqqa.
- Those wishing to leave Raqqa face the threat of mines, airstrikes, sniper fire, indirect fire, family separation and movement restrictions.
- Forced recruitment by armed groups is also a reported issue. Children remain particularly vulnerable to the threat from IEDs and landmines as well as psychological trauma.
- Drinking water pumped from local boreholes is reportedly causing sickness in the majority of populated neighbourhoods.
SAVE THE CHILDREN’S RESPONSE
- Save the Children is helping children and families fleeing Raqqa by providing them with clean water and sanitation, safe spaces to play and psycho-social support, and temporary classrooms.
- As the crisis escalates we plan to also set up mobile health and child protection units and provide food and longer-term shelter.