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Two years on: Syria's children in peril

Syria childrens protest
Children take part in a protest against Syria's President Bashar Assad in Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo March 1.(Giath Taha/Reuters)

It started with a crackdown that shocked the world: 15 children thrown in jail and tortured for splashing anti-regime graffiti on a wall in a Syrian farm town.

The arrests in drought-stricken Daraa on March 6, 2011, led to swelling protests and ever-worsening repression from President Bashar Assad. The children – their fingernails torn out and their bodies beaten and burned – were released two weeks later. But it was only a preview of what was to come.

“This deplorable overreaction marked the beginning of the regime’s public attack against its children and its people,” said Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird this week.

Since the Daraa events, children have seen constant violence, and many more have been seized, tortured and gravely wounded in bombings. More than 3,500 have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which tallies reports from doctors and activists who record the names and numbers of the dead.

The survivors are at risk of losing their futures to homelessness and the collapse of the education system.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF says that “Syria once prided itself on the quality of its schools. Now it’s seeing the gains it made over the years rapidly reversed.”

In Deraa alone, 300 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and at least 2,400 throughout the country. Over 1,500 are shelters for displaced people. Teachers have fled or been killed, and in the former economic powerhouse of Aleppo, school attendance has dropped to 6 per cent. The schools that manage to stay open are often overcrowded, with up to 100 to a class.

UNICEF has opened “school clubs” in major cities and towns that are giving children remedial classes and a badly needed recreation break. But like most charitable programs for Syria it’s underfunded – its educational budget of $20 million has so far received only $3 million.

Canada has committed a modest $48 million to aid for Syria. Some countries have yet to ante up. But leaders who worry about the future could do worse that investing in the education that prepares children for eventual peace – rather than generational war.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia.She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.



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