Witnesses to war: The shattered lives of Zaatari's children

"They saw death, explosions, shelling. It is difficult to deal with the children because they are difficult psychologically"

Her shy, endearing smile and gentle manner belie the horrors Asil has witnessed by the age of 8.

It is only as her mother Nour explains the significance of the drawings she has sketched while we are talking that one realizes how deeply those horrors are buried within her.

In one, the lone figure on a balcony is Asil herself - two years previously - looking up at the moon and stars and drinking in the cool night air.

However, her mother had forbidden her children from going out for fear of them being shot at by snipers and was forced to put up thick blankets to prevent any light seeping out from within.

The tanks and soldiers destroying the family home was the point at which the family finally fled for the safety of Jordan.

Another drawing shows gunmen shooting at her father in his car and a sniper targeting children going to buy sweets at a corner shop close to their home. Thankfully, her father survived the attack.

But her traumatic memories are not an isolated case.

The Syrian crisis – which has claimed the lives of 100,000 people so far – has been termed a ‘children’s crisis’ by aid workers. Half of the 2million people who have left the country are children. Zaatari is no different - 60,000 of its 120,000 population are under 18.

Many have been close to death, either seeing it first hand or hearing of friends and family being killed.

[A desert haven for 120,000 Syrian refugees fleeing the raging conflict]

It is not uncommon to hear adults say that if it was just them, they would have stayed in their towns and villages.

But hearing grim accounts of youngsters having their throats cut and the terror of their children being killed forced them to leave Syria. As if further illustration were necessary, they make the motion of a hand moving across the throat when talking to you.

‘It is because of the children that people come,’ said a teacher and father of two. ‘If I was alone I would have stayed.’

‘I did not want to come to the camp. I heard a lot of bad things.’

‘I was in the street [in his home town] and I hear missiles and I got to hide. I said if I survive I will go to the camp. People said there [in the camp] you will live life like a dog.’

Violence, lack of privacy and the stress of living without basic facilities are just some of the problems faced by refugees in camps, says William Hopkins, a consultant psychiatrist and psychotherapist for the charity Freedom From Torture.

‘They also have to deal with a loss of role. They no longer can be the parent who can provide for or support their family, they’ve lost their job, lost their money. They can feel undermined and inferior and can’t get the things they need for their children.’

Lack of privacy is a sensitive issue in the camp: many refugees are housed in five-man tents and are reliant on communal toilets and cooking areas.

As regards education, in Zaatari there are currently three schools run by UNICEF and Jordan's Ministry of Education catering for children from primary to secondary age as well as 43 of fenced off ‘safe spaces’ also provided by UNICEF and aid agencies such as Save The Children. The schools have places for only 15,000 youngsters - half of the 30,000 school age children.

[Syria: Its history, its culture and why the civil war erupted]

Ahmed, who helps out at one of the schools, said that when asked to do drawings, children in the camp frequently reproduced images similar to Asil’s featuring guns and tanks.

‘We try to get them to draw flowers, different things for different frames of mind but all this is what is in children’s minds,’ he said.

Used to homes with gardens with their toys and bicycles which they had to leave behind they are now thrust into the searing heat and unfamiliar surroundings of a desert environment. At home they turned on a tap in the kitchen for water, now they have to go and stand in a queue to get water from a communal pump.

Even in school there is an unruliness emerging that was unheard of in Syria, ranging from spitting sunflower husks on to the floor to throwing stones.

One teacher who bemoaned the lack of discipline in the classes said she saw it as the children becoming more selfish: ‘The children say you cannot control us.’

She added that whereas parents back in Syria were concerned about their child’s education, now their sole concern was that their children were alive.

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Another teacher and mother who fled to the camp with her four children described how she was struggling to understand the changes she was seeing.

‘They saw death, explosions, shelling. It is difficult to deal with the children because they are difficult psychologically. If they see violence, like someone hitting someone, it is a trigger.’

She said her own children constantly have bad dreams involving death and violence.

‘Sometimes they remind me of chocolate bought in a park [back in Syria] and the name of the chocolate but often it is bad dreams,’ she said.

Within the camp there are a handful of impromptu ‘arcades’ set up in pre-fab huts where PCs run video games. The shoot-em up game ‘Counter Strike’ is one of the most popular, as are imaginary war games in the streets outside.

‘They [the children] behave as if they are men fighting in Syria. All games are about FSA [Free Syrian Army] against Assad,’ she said.

[The trauma of being a refugee]

The imbalance of the camp’s population – 75 per cent women and children – has had an impact on its social structure, generating an increased burden on children to help provide for their families.

Throughout the camp one sees youngsters at work in stalls or transporting goods through the alleyways in wheelbarrows.

It was only after the death of one 17-year-old boy that it came to light that he was providing for 13 family members.

UNHCR camp manager Kilian Kleinschmidt, 51, said boys were ageing fast and trying to become ‘little men’.

‘The boys are trying to prove how manly they are. See how they greet you by slapping your hand,’ he said.
‘The girls get married early and become women very fast.’

Frustrations over access to electricity and the pre-fab shelters would occasionally be vented by gangs of children throwing stones at police or at UN officials. Over one two-day period, they even dismantled and carted off in pieces a police station made up of prefabricated shelters.

But Kleinschmidt said there was a shift emerging in the attitude of parents and they were now exerting influence over them.

‘In the beginning parents found it funny, now adults try to stop it,’ he said.

But he added that children fell into different subgroups. Some benefit from the influence of family members and elders but others are in street gangs.

‘That is our real problem,’ he added.

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Efforts are being made to find out how many children there are in such gangs.

One former teacher in Syria said some of the children carried knives.  Their use on each other appeared to be borne out with a chance encounter myself and my photographer had when a group of boys gathered round interested in our cameras.

One boy who said he was 12 - but looked more like nine - had a scar running down the side of his face and cigarette burn marks on his arm. When asked who had done it and why he just shrugged his shoulders said ‘my brother’ and turned away with an awkward smile.

Earlier this year the UN’s children’s agency released a report - ‘Shattered Lives’ - that highlighted that women and children in the camp were increasingly exposed to violence and abuse.

It said that the uprooting of communities from Syria had "exposed women and children to the risk of gender-based violence and abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence".

It added that information it had received indicated that gangs controlled access to the prefab houses as well as playing a role in determining access to market pitches and prices on the black market.
"Due to conflict and displacement the nearly 60,000 children living in the Zaatari refugee camp have had their lives torn apart,’ said Michele Servadei, UNICEF Jordan’s deputy representative. ‘These children have been robbed of normal childhood experiences like going to school.’

'UNICEF is reaching these children with education, life-saving health care, clean water and sanitation services as well as psycho social support to address the emotional distress of living through
years of war.'

One such initiative is a film project - funded by the International Medical Corps and UNICEF - where children talk about their hopes for the future, listing such ambitions as becoming a flight engineer, doctor or musician.

But Servadei outlined that more needed to be done by the international community as currently 40 per cent of UNICEF Jordan's emergency programs are not funded this year.

Ghandi Mohammad Bakkar, 50, protection manager for Save The Children in Zaatari said: ‘In such a crisis the children are the most vulnerable group. They may face losing the chance to continue their education, face challenges over their food, drink and clothing besides what experiences they had before coming to Zaatari.'

He said that Save The Children also gave them social and psychological support.

‘We help them get over these harsh experiences they found before coming to the camp.'

But for the mother of four an end to their life in the camp and a return to Syria - despite all the horrors they have faced - can’t come soon enough.

‘We want to go to our homes. We have no dreams here. Syria is very beautiful and we have great memories there. Our friends, our homes, gardens, trees.

‘There is no dust there.’

[Some names have been changed in the article]

A remarkable video series depicting the extraordinary challenges faced by aid workers and refugees in Zaatari will be shown exclusively on Yahoo UK starting on Tuesday November 12. See the trailer for the series here.

To find out more about the work of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees and the United Nations Children's Fund click on the links below: