BEIRUT // Violence against children in war-ravaged Syria was at its worst in 2016, with at least 652 children killed, the UN’s children’s agency said on Monday as the conflict nears its seventh year.
Unicef said the cases of children being killed, maimed, or recruited into armed groups were the “highest on record” last year.
There was no letup to attacks on schools, hospitals, playgrounds, parks and homes as the Syrian government, its opponents and the allies of both sides showed callous disregard for the laws of war.
Unicef said at least 255 children were killed in or near schools last year and 1.7 million youngsters are out of school.
One of every three schools in Syria is unusable, some because armed groups occupy them.
“The depth of suffering is unprecedented. Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis, their lives turned upside down,” said Geert Cappelaere, Unicef’s regional director.
“Each and every child is scarred for life with horrific consequences on their health, well-being, and future,” he said from the central Syrian city of Homs.
Unicef recorded the violent deaths of at least 652 children last year, a 20 per cent increase from 2015, and more than 250 of the victims were killed inside or near a school.
The figures were released in a Unicef report ahead of the sixth anniversary later this week of the 2011 popular uprising against the rule of president Bashar Al Assad. The uprising, which was part of the Arab Spring movements across the Middle East, quickly morphed into a multi-front war.
Children were among the first victims of the government’s brutal crackdown.
On March 15, 2011, a small demonstration broke out in the capital of Damascus and three days later, residents in the southern Syrian city of Daraa marched to demand the release of teenage students arrested for writing anti-government slogans on their school’s walls. They were tortured in detention.
The report warns that for Syria’s young generation, coping mechanisms and medical care are eroding quickly. Dozens of children are also dying from preventable diseases.
To cope with increasingly difficult living conditions, families inside Syria and in host nations have been forced to push their children into early marriages or child labour just to survive.
“There is so much more we can and should do to turn the tide for Syria’s children,” said Mr Cappelaere.
A report released a week ago by the international charity Save the Children said Syrian youngsters are showing signs of “toxic stress” that can lead to lifelong health problems, struggles with addiction and mental disorders lasting into adulthood.
The use of child soldiers is also on the rise in Syria, Unicef said. At least 850 children were recruited to fight in the conflict, including as executioners or suicide bombers — more than double the 2015 number.
Children across the country are at risk of severe injury while playing around landmines and cluster munitions. Demining operations in opposition-held areas have been severely hampered by inaccessibility to outside experts.
Meanwhile, the Norwegian Refugee Council said that as the sixth year of Syria’s conflict nears its end, 13.5 million people remain in need of aid in dire and deteriorating conditions. Half as many are displaced in their own country, with almost 5 million refugees in neighbouring countries where conditions keep getting increasingly desperate.
Unicef said that 2.3 million Syrian children are living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq.
Another 280,000 still live under siege across Syria, with no access to food or medicine, it said.
“Over the last year in Syria, all parties involved have blocked vital aid supplies and millions have become poorer, hungrier and more isolated from assistance and from the world,” said NRC’s Mideast director, Carsten Hansen.
“We join the rest of the international humanitarian community on this milestone of shame to voice outrage at the plight of millions of civilians living in a downward spiral of despair,” the organisation added.
It said parties to the conflict continue using siege and starvation as a weapon of war. Around 5 million people remain trapped in areas of active fighting, including almost one million in besieged areas who have no access to sustained humanitarian assistance.
More than 310,000 people have been killed and millions have been forced to flee their homes since Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011.
* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press