ARMED CONFLICT: No place to hide for children of war in Gaza and Syria

[27 July 2014] - The conflicts in Syria and Gaza are having a a devastating impact on the lives of children. The BBC's Lyse Doucet who has been following the lives of six Syrian children, and who has just returned from reporting in Gaza, reflects on how war will shape the futures of young people there for decades to come.

"When you see it on TV, it's not like it is in real life."

Twelve-year-old Syed leans into a narrow concrete wall, staring at its rough grey surface as if his eyes could drill a hole to help him escape from his life.

"When we sat in the ambulance together, I thought he was going to live so I felt a bit better."

But by the time they reached the hospital, his little brother Mohammad was dead. Three of his cousins were also killed that fateful day on 16 July, as they played near Gaza's port when Israel shelled the area twice, in quick succession.

Israel insists it doesn't intentionally target civilians, but Gaza is a sliver of a space, a densely populated and now dangerous place, where children have nowhere to hide.

Hamas and other armed groups deny they use civilians as human shields, but we've also seen rockets being fired from inside buildings and from open fields.

Friends turned enemies

Wars of our time are brutal battles that take the fight straight into streets and schools, leaving little in their wake.

Children are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed. Last week in Gaza, the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour.

Before Gaza took over the headlines, it was the children of Syria who pricked the world's conscience.

In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers' sights. Even infants have been tortured.

Millions of children live with hunger and fear, many suffering in areas under siege.

With every trip to Syria, I began to realise that children were not just little people with heartbreaking tears or infectious smiles. They are on the frontlines, able to tell their own compelling stories about the complex and consequential wars of our time.

Over the past six months, I and director-cameraman Robin Barnwell followed the lives of six Syrian children. Their stories sketch a political and social map of their nation and provide a troubling glimpse into its future.

"I'm only a child in age and appearance," Ezadine, 9, says matter-of-factly. "But in terms of morals and humanity, I'm not. In the past, a 12-year-old was considered young, but not now. Now, at 12 years, you must go for jihad."

Ezadine looks like any nine-year-old - a kid with an impish smile who saunters about the schoolyard, listening to music on his headphones.

But he's a refugee in a camp in southern Turkey in a world steeped in the Free Syrian Army, including a teenage brother who's already joined the fight across the border.

Hundreds of miles away in Damascus, 14-year-old Jalal's world is rooted in steadfast support for President Bashar al-Assad, including a father and uncles who fight in a neighbourhood defence unit.

Jalal regrets that "the crisis changed us. Now children understand and talk about politics. We're all ready to die for our country."

Both Jalal and Ezadine peer across a deep divide and see former friends, now on the other side, as "brainwashed."

And children see their own plight with searing clarity.

"I don't see why I had to lose my leg because Bashar al-Assad wants to stay in power," remarks nine-year-old Mariam with a pretty blue dress and a steeliness beyond her years.

She remembers everything about the day a Syrian warplane headed straight for her house in a village outside the city of Homs.

"We had a big window. I looked through it and saw it coming towards us. It dropped the barrel and was gone. "

To this day she can't sit in a living room. And she's not able to play with other children in a playground in southern Turkey.

'I hate the future'

For the youngest, it is often about the building blocks of their world, even about bread and books.

Eight-year-old Baraa, whose family fled the besieged Old Quarter of Homs, speaks with shame that "instead of learning to read and write, I learnt about all types of weapons. I now know the names of bullets, tracers and rubber bullets."

And when we meet 13-year-old Kifah in the Palestinian camp of Yarmouk, on the edge of Damascus, he tells us life is "normal".

But his teenage resolve to present a brave face crumbles when we ask what he was able to eat. Kifah collapses in a flood of tears, admitting "there was no bread".

There's a new and troubling "normal" for children living in war.

"Are the children frightened?" I ask Amer Oda, who heads an extended family living in a cavernous shell of a building in the Gazan neighbourhood of Zeitoun.

Children of every age huddle on the stairs behind him or sit cross-legged on a bare concrete floor.

There's a regular thud of Israeli artillery or tank fire just down the street, and the loud whoosh of rockets being fired into Israel.

Amer Oda ignored Israeli warnings to take his 45-member family out of this area, asking, as every Gazan does, "Where can I go?"

"This has become normal life for them," he says as he pulls up four-year-old Dima, with round brown eyes and an angelic grin. "This is all they know."

Dima has lived through two Gazan wars, and every Gazan, aged six and over, has been through three or more.

Children often speak with a wisdom beyond their years but they still have the yearnings of the young.

In Gaza, three children from one family were killed by Israel's warning strike known as a "knock on the roof". They were playing with pigeons on that roof, as children do.

When I first reported on the deaths of the four children on beach, I was told by eyewitnesses that they had been scavenging for metal at the port to help support their families. Their fathers are fishermen who aren't allowed to take their boats out to sea.

I asked Ramiz Bakr, father of Mohammad and Syed, what the children had been doing that fateful day.

"Oh they were gathering pieces of metal for a game," he explained, as he received condolences at a mourning tent a few streets from the beach. "It's just a little game they play about Arabs versus Israelis."

In wars of our time, the games children play can be the game changers of their future.

"I hate the future so much," says 11-year-old Daad of Syria who dresses in pink and has dark nightmares. "We might live, or we might die."

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