Can Syria’s children ever forget? – By Benedict Brogan
From Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph
Benedict Brogan meets refugees who have fled the horrors of civil war for the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon
When the soldiers raid a house, they demand all mobile phones and threaten to execute the women if they find any hidden. The reason is unexpectedly sinister. For all its medieval savagery, the Syrian civil war is being played out in the digital age, so suspect mobiles are checked for compromising photographs and Facebook pages that might identify rebels.
The revolution against the Assad regime is being fought on the web by activists who use secret identities to pass on news and organise opposition. When it started, soldiers at checkpoints asked to see any “Facebooks”, imagining they were real books. Now they know what to look for.
That digital dimension is the first of many surprises about this humanitarian crisis. Fahed told me about the search for mobiles, because he was there. His house in a Damascus suburb was ransacked, the men taken up to the roof and lined up for execution, while the women and children were ordered at gunpoint to hand over all phones. They were saved by the intervention of a friendly officer. Fahed’s family – his parents, younger brother and two younger sisters – escaped, but not before he saw his school destroyed by rocket fire and endured the terror of being in a car targeted by snipers.
Fahed is 11, a Barcelona fan who aspires to be a doctor. He cracks his knuckles and his hands twitch and grasp constantly as we speak in the office of a “child-friendly space” run by Save the Children in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon, where at least 350,000 Syrian refugees have sought shelter from the violence ravaging their country.
Last week the United Nations confirmed that one million people have escaped Syria since the civil war began two years ago. That number has gone up by another 100,000 since. The strong cultural and family connections mean many go to Lebanon, a country of just four million people with vast problems of its own. Up to 10,000 come in a day.
I spent an hour last week standing among the money changers at the Masna’a border crossing, watching a bumper-to-bumper procession of vehicles pour slowly out of Syria. Some came in coaches and minibuses, others in dusty vintage Mercedes loaded down with furniture and families, top-end Range Rovers bearing sleek-looking couples in matching Ray‑Bans, even a stuttering tractor hauling the contents of a house; all of them desperate to escape the random violence at home.
The Lebanese government, wary of the Palestinian precedent, has refused to establish camps that might become permanent. So the refugees settle where they can. Some have property in Beirut, for years the recreation ground and banking centre for Syria’s elite. Those with money rent houses. Landlords with vacant or incomplete buildings are making a fortune hiring out space, often just a concrete floor and a roof. Some find a spot by the road and improvise shacks using cardboard and plastic sheeting, with used tyres to keep the roof on. Settlements spring up here and there, but they can be easily missed.
That is another surprise: refugees are mixed in with the Lebanese, in a way that must be reminiscent of the millions across Europe who fled the advancing Germans in 1940. They are not the starving poor escaping famine and herded into vast camps. Rather, they are hidden, yet their growing numbers are stretching Lebanon’s already fragile civic, economic and social structures to breaking point. Privately, aid workers and Lebanese officials fear the strain will push Lebanon back towards civil war and lawlessness. Syria’s violence is contagious.
We were taken to a Bekaa village to see what was once one of Yasser Arafat’s prisons, when the PLO was strong here. For a time it was a notorious Syrian army outpost. The smell of waste is impossible to escape. When it rains, the floors flood and water runs down the dirty walls. Improvised electric wires criss-cross the courtyard.
What were once cells now house several families, who sleep on mats around a kerosene stove. Only a few have windows, and cardboard partitions provide little privacy. They share a single water tap. There is still snow on the mountains and it is bitingly cold.
Horrieh lives in one of the upstairs rooms with her extended family. She is nine and used to live in a suburb of Damascus, where she enjoyed English and art at school, especially painting the sea and sky, and playing catch with other boys and girls. School became too frightening to go to because of the bombing raids that forced everyone to hide under their desks. The sound of the explosions would make children wet themselves in terror.
Five months ago, her father was arrested and she hasn’t seen him since: “I miss him very much.” She, too, wrings her hands silently and furiously as she speaks, a common habit among traumatised children. I show her a photo of my nine-year-old daughter on my phone. “God bless her,” she says quietly, which leaves me unable to speak.
Her brother Thaer, 12, is happy for me to touch the spot on his head where a piece of shrapnel from a rocket cracked his skull and left him unconscious. It happened when he was playing football with friends. He’s a Real Madrid fan. His friend Mohamed was killed beside him by a sniper.
They were working in a falafel shop. He saw Mohamed coming towards him, turned and then heard a shot. When he looked back Mohamed was lying on the ground. At first he thought his friend was joking because there was no blood. “I tried to wake him by hitting his face. Then we took off his shirt and saw the bullet hole. There was only a drop of blood.” It’s a shock, more than a surprise, to come across so many horrific accounts of violence aimed directly at children.
We heard these stories sitting cross-legged on rugs in the family’s cell. Their mother and aunts listened in, occasionally adding a detail. Um Hamad, evidently the matriarch, ordered tea and described the horror of snipers and gang rapes back home.
“The Israelis, we can consider them friends when compared to this,” she says. “The Israelis didn’t kill children or destroy homes, they didn’t target civilians. The Syrians are worse than the Israelis.”
These are stunning words from a Muslim woman in a headscarf speaking in the Bekaa valley, where not that long ago the only Westerners were hostages chained to radiators.
“Look at how we are forced to live. We have to cook next to the toilets. Even animals don’t live like this. We used to live in palaces and now we are three or four families to a room. I want the world to know about this.”
To hear so many versions of relatively prosperous lives disrupted by war is equally startling. Here are middle-class families who relied on many of the comforts and certainties we enjoy in Britain until they were swept away by a sudden cataclysm. Its victims are not destitute, but what they had has been destroyed.
In a rubbish-filled field in Maraj al Jarahia, Abu Ali shares his jerry-built shack with several families. It’s made of plastic food sacks nailed to a wooden frame, then lined with Hula Hoops cartons. As before, we sit on mats around a wood stove and drink tea. He owned a modest grocery store, but it has all gone. His brother was killed on his motorcycle by a sniper in Homs. “When you take your martyr to hospital, they make you sign a paper to say he was killed by armed gangs. But it’s the soldiers who do the shooting.”
Their greatest fear was the bearded soldiers who searched for women. They have a 17-year-old daughter. “She was beautiful and smart and wanted to be an architect.” They decided she would be safer married, so they arranged for her to marry her cousin, who is 25. It is a common practice now. Some as young as 14 seek the protection of a husband to escape the rapes.
Today, Save the Children publishes Childhood Under Fire, its report on the impact of two years of war on children in Syria. It makes for distressing reading. Today, too, the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall will visit refugees in Jordan. William Hague has raised the possibility of providing arms to the Free Syrian Army and David Cameron suggested yesterday Britain could break with the EU arms embargo, but the major players of the international community – the US, Europe, Russia, China – are divided and appear indifferent.
Horrieh, living in her cold, dirty, disused prison, wants to be a doctor, to help the war’s victims. But for all of Syria’s capacity to surprise us with its violence and suffering, there is no sign that it will allow her to fulfil that dream.