Syria’s children suffer shocking war trauma

Hiding his face to conceal his identity, a Syrian refugee Khalid, 15, tells his story of torture © Save the Children

A charity has captured the world’s attention by revealing first hand stories of children caught in Syria’s bloody civil war. Its report, Untold Atrocities, details appalling suffering.

‪‘We have published this report so the voices of the children themselves can be heard,’ the chief executive of Save the Children, Justin Forsyth, said yesterday while launching Untold Atrocities, a report about the abuses suffered by young people in Syria. ‘We must listen and act.’‬

‪Khalid, age 15, was tortured by troops loyal to the regime of Syria’s authoritarian leader Bashar al Assad. In a camp over the Jordanian border he told his story to the report’s authors. Save the Children describe many of the refugee children as highly traumatised by what they have seen and experienced, badly in need of the practical and emotional support provided by the British charity.‬

‪Tales of abduction and torture are so widespread that Save the Children claim they indicate systematic abuse of children inside Syria. Almost every child they spoke to had witnessed a family member being killed, the researchers said.‬

‪Alli, age 12, says his family fled because their home was constantly under bombardment. ‘We hid in the shelter. A shell hit my aunt's house and killed my cousins. I feel I cannot tolerate seeing the house where they were killed. Whenever I hear shelling, I get terrified and I start to cry and remember my cousins.’‬

‪During wars and armed conflicts, the front pages of newspapers and the top stories on the broadcasters’ news bulletins are dominated by pictures and reportage sent from the warzone. Often, after an initial period of shock, the public experience ‘compassion fatigue.’‬

‪But it is highly unusual to hear such a painstakingly researched examination of the plight of children in a conflict zone. So yesterday, every international news outlet was following the story.‬

‪Impact or shock?‬

‪Most of the stories are too upsetting to retell here. For Save the Children this is a tactical victory: the first hand accounts of suffering have made such an impact that its campaign has been propelled to the front line of the battle for media attention. Many will applaud the charity for bringing such appalling misery to our attention.‬

‪Others worry that the children of Syria may just add to the constant background noise – the conflict has no end in sight. By shocking the public, more money is raised to help refugees, and more names added to the campaign’s petition to world leaders. Can we live with the thought that children’s raw suffering has been professionally packaged to feed the voracious appetite of 24 hour news media?‬

You Decide

  1. Would the news be improved if children’s voices and experiences were heard more often?
  2. Have you ever suffered from ‘compassion fatigue’? Do you think charity campaigns and news coverage lead to a desensitised public? Or should they aim to shock?


  1. Think of some fundraising activities: would you choose to send the money to Save the Children after hearing about this campaign?
  2. Write a letter to the United Nations, which your class can sign and send, calling for action to protect Syria’s children.

Some People Say...

“‪‘Childhood is a luxury only enjoyed in peacetime’‬”

What do you think?

Q & A

Can anything be done?
‪A: The United Nations is meeting this week at its New York headquarters, and Save the Children has released this report to put pressure on the United Nations to act. The charity wants more UN observers to document abuses ‘so those responsible for these appalling crimes against children can be held to account.’ The charity itself has been refused access to Syria. ‬

Word Watch

Bashar al Assad
When he succeeded his father as President of Syria after the older man’s death in 2000, the international community hoped Bashar al Assad would be a reformer. Instead he responded to popular demonstrations demanding change, which had been encouraged by the Arab Spring uprisings across the region, with brutal repression. In July 2012 the internal conflict was officially called a civil war by the Red Cross.
As well as the obvious, visible wounds inflicted on those caught up in a war, many refugees and survivors of conflict, as well as soldiers, suffer from emotional and psychological damage, which can be long term. Save the Children is providing specialist support to the refugee children who they say are showing classic signs of trauma, including nightmares and bedwetting.
Compassion fatigue
A syndrome originally described as affecting long-term carers, where they become numbed to the suffering of their charges. Now the phrase is in more general use, to describe the public reaction to shocking news and images of suffering diminishing over time.

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