Grim toll on Syrian children: UN report cites torture, execution

The UN's annual report on children and armed conflict notes that children in war zones are never exempt from violence, but that the plight of Syrian children is especially shocking.

A Syrian revolutionary flag waves on top of a building on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, June 12. The UN accused the Syrian government of using children as human shields in a new report released Tuesday.

Syria’s violence is taking a particularly grim toll on Syrian children, the UN reports, with boys as young as 10 being detained and tortured and infants facing execution in their beds or being burned alive.

The United Nations’ annual report on children and armed conflict, released Tuesday by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also singles out a militia loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as being the perpetrator of some of the conflict’s most extreme attacks on children.

Of course children in conflict zones are never exempt from violence, as the annual report underscores. The report finds that children in 22 countries are subject to warlike violence and grave violations committed by more than 50 governments, militias, and armed groups.

The annual UN report for the first time cites the Taliban in Afghanistan for resorting increasingly to attacks on schools. The Taliban have recently stepped up the targeting of girls’ schools by poisoning their water supplies, in numerous cases sickening scores of girls attending class.

But the violence against children caught up in Syria’s 15-month-old conflict is especially gruesome and shocking, UN officials say.

Citing eyewitness accounts and the testimonies of former Syrian soldiers who deserted the armed forces, the report lists cases of children being used as human shields by soldiers entering opposition strongholds, children being detained and tortured, and cases of child sexual abuse.

“We are really quite shocked. Killing and maiming of children in crossfire is something we come across in many conflicts,” the UN’s special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, told the BBC Tuesday. “But this torture of children in detention, children as young as 10, is something quite extraordinary, which we really don’t see in other places.”  

At least 1,000 of the estimated 10,000 Syrians who have died in Syria’s conflict have been children, regional analysts and children’s rights advocates estimate.

The over-the-top nature of some of the violence against Syrian children has led to speculation about why this would occur in Syria. One theory is that Syria’s particular sectarian divisions might have opened the door to acts that may be less likely to occur in more monolithic societies.

The UN report singles out the Shabiha militia, loyal to the regime of President Assad, for carrying out a number of the conflict’s more barbaric acts. The Shabiha, formed under the reign of Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, are considered fanatically loyal enforcers mostly from the Assad family’s minority Alawite sect of Shiism. Many of their victims have been Sunnis, who make up about three-quarters of Syria’s population.

The Shabiha militia is suspected in several of the most recent massacres in Syria, including where children were shot in their beds and houses were set afire with occupants inside.

The UN report also cites the rebel Syrian Free Army for endangering children, primarily by assigning them to jobs and tasks that risk putting them in the line of fire.

By painting such a grim picture of conditions for children in Syria, the report seems to raise an even more troubling question: How much more bleak might the plight of Syrian children become if the country ends up sinking into a full-blown civil war? 

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