Life among Barrel Bombs for Aleppo’s Children

August 4th, 2016 - by admin

Olivia Alabaster & Zouhir Al Shimale / Al Jazeera & Samer Abboud / Al Jazeera – 2016-08-04 00:07:01

Life among Barrel Bombs for Aleppo’s Children
Olivia Alabaster & Zouhir Al Shimale / Al Jazeera

[Children need] safety, comfort, protection, room to play. I don’t mean physical room, but psychological space. But if you don’t know when a barrel bomb is going to fall next, there’s only so much you can do.
— John Kahler, paediatrician

ALEPPO, Syria (August 1, 2016) — Eight months ago, Hala’s mother was killed in front of her when a shell struck the family’s home in rebel-held eastern Aleppo.

“Whenever I remember this moment, my tears just fall by themselves,” Hala, 14, told Al Jazeera.

“Even after we moved to another house, I have been having nightmares, and I awake suddenly in the middle of the night and I just can’t sleep again,” she said. “I feel very exhausted.”

Regardless of how many civilians manage to leave besieged Aleppo in the coming days or weeks, the psychological scars left on the city’s children will take much longer to heal, doctors say.

Some 300,000 civilians remain in the opposition-held part of the city, 60 percent of whom are women and children, according to Save the Children.

The Russian and Syrian governments announced last week that civilians and any fighters who surrendered would be allowed to leave the city via humanitarian corridors, but Amnesty International expressed scepticism, noting that even if safe routes were provided, this “will not avert a humanitarian catastrophe”.

John Kahler, a paediatrician from Chicago who recently visited Aleppo on a voluntary medical mission with the Syrian American Medical Society – one of the biggest organisations still providing healthcare inside the country – said the situation has become increasingly dire.

“It was powers of 10 worse than what I expected. You can’t expect it if you haven’t seen it – whole blocks were bombed out,” he told Al Jazeera.

Civil wars are deeply traumatic for children, Kahler said, noting that to be happy, children must feel secure and comfortable.

“[In a civil war], it’s not just an external aggressor. These are foes from inside,” he said, noting the degradation of cultural security can leave children feeling extremely vulnerable, affecting their ability to trust others and to find comfort.

“[In Aleppo I saw] kids who couldn’t be comforted … At the least provocation, they would break down,” Kahler said, citing temper tantrums and signs of “significant anxiety disorder”.

Um Hanan, a mother of five children whose husband was killed three years ago when a shell hit his carpentry workshop in Aleppo, said she was at a local market last year with her daughter Basma when two barrel bombs fell nearby.

While Basma, now 11, quickly recovered from her light wounds, the psychological trauma has lingered, her mother told Al Jazeera. Ten days after the incident, she began wetting her bed at night, and her hands shake while she eats. She no longer seems to enjoy socialising, her mother added: “She goes to school but she doesn’t play, and she is not very interactive in classes or in the free time between the lessons.”

Um Hanan, however, says she has struggled to find support for her daughter.

“I really don’t know what to do,” she said. “I visited and asked many doctors and pharmacists about her situation, but they all said she can’t be treated because it is a psychological issue.”

Abdulkarim Ekzayez, a doctor with Save the Children, expressed concern that children have not been receiving sufficient psychosocial support in many areas of Syria.

“We do have a lot of cases of mental health and children really badly affected, psychosocially, by the conflict,” said Ekzayez, who heads the organisation’s health and nutrition programme for northwestern Syria. He said that he has seen children exhibiting anxiety-related symptoms, often after having left besieged areas.

“You can see the child is isolated. In the child-friendly centres, a lot of children are not engaged with other children; they do not play, they prefer to be alone, they do not laugh at all,” he said. “Such symptoms are really common.”

Kahler says this type of anxiety can manifest as bed-wetting and having difficulty eating, a situation that has been exacerbated in Aleppo as families have been repeatedly internally displaced, with their everyday routines torn apart.

Jamila’s 16-year-old son, Ahmad, has displayed many of these symptoms, his mother told Al Jazeera. Five months ago, he was at school when the building was hit in a regime air raid. He managed to escape serious injury as he was in an underground classroom at the time, but he has not been able to forget that day.

“This is not the first time he has survived a bombing from a jet, but this one truly had a bad effect,” Jamila said. “He has lost his appetite and has been eating a small amount of food.” He has also been wetting the bed and stammering, she said, noting she has tried in vain to find appropriate support for Ahmad.

“There are no psychological doctors or specialists in the rebel-held part of Aleppo, but I asked and visited many pharmacists, and they gave me some medicines to help my son,” she said, noting the drugs have helped somewhat, but not enough.

She lamented the gradual exodus of doctors from Aleppo in the years since Syria’s civil war broke out.

“Why they have abandoned the city? We suffer from constant sickness … All of those who have left will never be forgiven by those of us who have had to survive with basic treatments in order not to die,” Jamila said. “Doctors’ work should be here on the ground, which is what they had an oath to do.”

While life in a warzone is unpredictable, Kahler said, it is crucial for parents to impress upon their children the message that life goes on.

“[Children need] safety, comfort, protection, room to play. I don’t mean physical room, but psychological space,” he said. “But if you don’t know when a barrel bomb is going to fall next, there’s only so much you can do.”

Syria Civil War: ‘The Sky Is Falling’ in Aleppo
Samer Abboud / Al Jazeera

(May 3, 2016) — In the early stages of the Syrian crisis, Aleppo was largely spared the violence that engulfed Homs, Hama, and other parts of the country.

Today, Aleppo has come to symbolise the devastation wrought on Syria and its population, having witnessed the worst violence of the conflict and unimaginable levels of human and physical destruction.

For years, the city has been physically divided between regime- and rebel-aligned forces and thus mirrored the larger military stalemate throughout the country.

What distinguished Aleppo from other parts of the country was its strategic value for rebel groups as a major hub on the supply route from Turkey and as a major population centre outside of regime control.

As such, when ceasefires and a cessation of hostilities were being negotiated after the Russian intervention, the Syrian regime was keen to isolate Aleppo and continue its onslaught to regain control over the city.

The Syrian regime and its allies, and now even the United States, have argued that Aleppo was mostly under the control of al-Nusra Front, which is outside of the cessation agreements.

Although blatantly untrue, the move has justified the continued bombardment of Aleppo and the imposition of a suffocating siege while maintaining the appearance of the regime’s honouring of the ceasefires.

In an effort to stave off the city’s fall, rebel groups have similarly intensified their attacks against regime-held areas. Caught in the middle are the hundreds of thousands of civilians who have already braved profound violence and who are suffering from what may turn out to be the conflict’s most deadly and decisive battles.

The civilian situation as accurately summarised by a Red Cross worker: “Wherever you are, you hear explosions of mortars, shelling and planes flying over. There is no neighbourhood of the city that hasn’t been hit.”

The intensification of violence has led to hundreds of deaths in the city on both sides of the frontlines and a further devastation of civilian infrastructure. It has been estimated that the recent violence has led to the death of a Syrian every 25 minutes.

What we are witnessing today is the regime’s most aggressive push to wrestle Aleppo away from rebel groups and to impose new realities on the Syrian conflict that shift regional and international calculations in the regime’s favour.
Healthcare and schooling are now virtually non-existent in the rebel-held areas and the encirclement of the city by regime-aligned forces means that basic necessities, such as food, are in short supply.

An aid worker confirmed this, stating that “the most vital areas in Aleppo” have been the targets of aerial attacks while the key supply highways leading to Turkey and to the eastern areas are under constant bombardment and siege.

The head of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) mission to Syria stated that in Aleppo, “the sky is falling”. For the first time in Aleppo’s history, Friday prayers were cancelled by the city’s legal council to ensure the safety of civilians.

What we are witnessing today is the regime’s most aggressive push to wrestle Aleppo away from rebel groups and to impose new realities on the Syrian conflict that shift regional and international calculations in the regime’s favour.

Regime-aligned forces are doing so through some of the most horrific and indiscriminate means of violence, including barrel bombings and brutal sieges that leave civilians without basic necessities.

Such strategies have been marshalled with tremendous success in other parts of the country where the goal of regaining nominal military control over territory supersedes any concern with civilian life.

The intensification of violence has nothing to do with fighting the imaginary al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group combatants that control the city. Instead, Aleppo’s bombardment is the continuation of a military strategy that has materialised in the context of a political process designed to satisfy the regime and its allies’ larger strategic goals.

This strategy involves the gradual recapture of territory through sustained aerial bombardment and suffocating sieges while paying lip service to a political process aimed at reducing the violence.

What this process has accomplished is the granting of a right of permanent exception to the regime and its allies to break ceasefires under the cover and pretext of battling Nusra and ISIL.

In this way, the destruction and besiegement of Aleppo can continue while international leaders maintain that the cessation agreements are working and that they have had “a profoundly positive effect”.

One wonders how a political process can both justify and reduce violence at the same time.

The city of Aleppo represents a significant obstacle to the regime and its allies’ strategic goals of territorial recapture. It is thus extremely naïve to assume that in this context ceasefires can be extended to Aleppo, as US Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested, until the regime-aligned forces are satisfied that the military situation is under their control.

This is precisely the formula for other parts of the country, such as Homs and Hama: Invoke the ISIL and Nusra threat to justify sustained attack and siege and, when the areas are cleansed, impose a ceasefire.

This is the strategy being invoked in Aleppo and why the city will, for now at least, remain outside the ceasefire zone.

In the meantime, one of the most brutal and destructive battles of the Syrian conflict rages on. Civilians on either side of the frontlines have suffered immensely, and will continue to do so as the regime-aligned forces pursue their vision for Syria and rebel groups attempt to stave off total collapse.

One resident stated that at this point “those who wanted to leave Aleppo have fled” and that those who stayed have decided to do so “under all circumstances of shelling and siege”.

In what is an increasingly desperate situation, rebel groups have congealed around Aleppo and are coordinating attacks against regime-aligned forces and civilian areas.

For the more than 400,000 residents who remain in Aleppo, the immediate future is bleak.

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