Syria's War Against Children

The regime of Bashar al-Assad is increasingly targeting young boys and girls, often with torture

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Young girls take part in a demonstration in Amude, Syria, on September 30. Their face paint reads "freedom" and "peacefully." / Reuters

On Monday, August 15, a woman we'll call Shadia took her husband and three-year-old son for an evening walk in Bab al-Dreib, a residential neighborhood in the Syrian city of Homs, where she lives. Some people from the area were gathering for a small demonstration and show of solidarity. Much of the crowd, gathered in a single street, was composed of local families. The military had launched a devastating siege on Homs a month earlier, but parts of the city had quieted, which may be why Shadia felt safe bringing her son to that night's protest.

Shortly after they arrived, Shadia watched two identical cars pull up to the crowd. She immediately recognized them as white Kia Ceratos, which are often used by the feared and despised Air Force intelligence. Men in the cars silently pointed automatic rifles at the crowd and opened fire. Shadia's husband leaned over their son to protect him but, because the gunmen had given no warning, he was unable to respond quickly enough, and a bullet entered the young boy's stomach.

When the shooting stopped, many of the protesters had scattered, but 20 or so were still on the ground, too badly injured to stand. People emerged from nearby houses to help; Shadia and her husband also remained with their son. As they moved away from the gunmen and the white cars, a large armored military vehicle -- Shadia called it a tank -- suddenly pulled up to the opposite end of the street, blocking their exit. The vehicle's turret opened fire, filling the street with "large bullets, the kind that can bring down walls," as Shadia later told a researcher with Human Right Watch.

A few hours later, more gunman and military vehicles arrived, firing at people and houses, apparently at random. Shadia's family escaped, and their son survived with medical care, but the people they watched die that night included a pregnant woman and a child that Shadia estimated to be 18 months old.

The violence in Syria has worsened dramatically and consistently since August. Shadia's story, typical of late summer and early fall violence there, was documented in a report by Human Rights Watch, one of several human rights reports that tell many such stories from the government's crackdown against civilians, often whether they are protesters or not. Children have increasingly come under fire in this violence. Though many of them are incidental victims like Shadia's son, the tactics that security forces employ throughout the country put children at incredible risk. At best, the regime may be indifferent to their young victims; at worst, they may be deliberately choosing an approach that increases the likelihood that its bullets find their way to young boys and girls. But, more and more, the stories from Syria describe security forces actively singling out children, often for torture or worse.

A United Nations report, released in late November, revealed that regime-allied forces are increasingly targeting children, often with sexual violence. The UN was able to confirm at least 256 children who had been killed by security forces. (Update, February 1: The UN has by now confirmed at least 384 child deaths, an average of more than two every day since the initial report.) In the Mediterranean city of Latakia, a popular tourist destination, a military officer shot a two-year-old girl, announcing he did not want her to grow into a demonstrator. Many civilians taken and later released by security forces -- the lucky ones -- described rape, and the threat of raping family members, as a frequent use of torture against adults as well as children.

One man broke down in an interview with UN researchers when he described being forced to watch three security officers rape an 11-year-old boy. "I have never been so afraid in my whole life. And then they turned to me and said; you are next," he said.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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