Syrian children are paying a heavy price for the ongoing conflict and their suffering hit 'rock bottom' in 2016 due to the drastic spike in violence, says a report by the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund.
According to the agency, around 652 children were killed last year, which is a 20% increase from the year before. At least 850 children were recruited to fight, three times more than the number of children recruited in 2015. Children as young as seven were coerced to take up frontline fighting, act as prison guards, executioners and suicide bombers.
"The past year has been the worst since the crisis began, with children pushed right to the brink – being recruited at an ever younger age, being used to man checkpoints, being trained to use weapons, serving as prison guards. We also have reports of sexual abuse of girls by underage children, so it's very grim," Juliette Touma, a spokesperson for Unicef said.
Geert Cappelaere, the organisation's regional director of Middle East and North Africa said: "The depth of suffering is unprecedented. Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis, their lives turned upside down."
At least six million children are dependent on humanitarian aid as almost half of them are forced to flee their homes due to the civil war, which has been ongoing for six years. At least 300,000 children are living under siege and have no access to aid. More than 2.3 million child refugees now live in neighbouring countries Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
The report also states that the coping mechanisms for the children and their families are eroding rapidly as parents are taking extreme measures to survive, often pushing children into labour or marriage.
A four-year-old child Fares, Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, was quoted in the report as saying: "I don't know how to read or write – I only know how to draw the sky, the sea and the sun."
In Syria, about 2 million children are out of school with almost a third of schools not usable due to destruction, the report says. About 500,00 Syrian children are out of school in neighbouring countries. "These are the children most at risk, because they are prone to early marriage, child labour and all sorts of abuse, and that makes them especially vulnerable to becoming a lost generation," Touma said.
Syrian children are, however, united in their desire to learn and dream of a peaceful country.
A 12-year-old Darsy, now a refugee in Turkey told Unicef, "I want to be a surgeon to help the sick and injured people of Syria. I dream of a Syria without a war so we can go home. I dream of a world without any wars."