The Syrian uprising has dominated Middle Eastern news headlines for the last 18 months. International audiences have viewed the conflict through an “Arab Spring” paradigm, which simply paints rebel fighters against a corrupt dictator. However, the systematic torture and murder of children by the Al-Assad regime separates the Syrian conflict from regional generalisations. Torture of teenage boys in Dara’a, for the painting of anti-regime graffiti slogans, sparked the revolution – the equivalent of Bouazizi’s self-immolation – and by August 2012 over 1,600 children had been killed. In order for international communities to understand the perseverance of Syrian protesters, there needs to be comprehension of this pertinent symbol of slaughtered childhood innocence.
According to the Centre for documentation of violations in Syria, the conflict has claimed over 20,535 lives as of 17th August 2012 – 1,920 of them children. In excess of 1,300 boys and 500 girls have been killed. The torture of children has been a steady feature of the 18-month conflict. Thirty-one children, aged between four and seventeen, died following torture at the hands of the Syrian government.
Thirty-one dead tortured children can seem a miniscule number when contrasted with the 758 adults who have died following torture. However, the impact of these children is far vaster than their numbers initially imply. The first child to be tortured and killed was 13-year-old Hamza Ali al-Khateeb. His death sparked demonstrations across the country – some named a day of protests ‘the Saturday of Hamza’. The Facebook group ‘We are all Hamza Ali al-Khateeb’ (كلنا الشهيد الطفل حمزة علي الخطيب) has over 575,000 ‘likes’. This impact vastly surpasses both its English language equivalent with roughly 26,000 ‘likes’, and the Facebook group ‘We are all Nazir’ set up in remembrance of Nazer Abdulhakim Abdulqader al-Zubi, an early adult torture martyr, with only 272 Facebook ‘likes’. The murder of children symbolises the ruthlessness of the regime that protesters are fighting to change. Razan Zaytouni, Syrian activist and human rights lawyer, explained that ‘such things always happened’ under Assad’s regime. Repression initially stimulated protests, only to intensify and become systematic during the uprising.
The murder of children did not have the desired impact of solely instilling fear in the population. In fact, an opposition activist from Damascus asserted the contrary – ‘there is nothing remaining to fear’. The violent suppression of ‘innocent’ children is leading to an increasingly polarised public, where people believe they have nothing to lose and inaction is painted as complicity with the regime. It is easy to view the tortured and dead as statistics, less easy to remember they are people’s sons and daughters. Youtube videos were not posted to exploit their deaths, but rather to beg the world to take note of children’s suffering, in the hope that they have not died in vain – displaying that the regime has not scared parents or activists into submission.
Videos, doctor’s assessments and interviews with torture survivors confirm that children are subject to similar systematic torture to adults. Hamza Ali al-Khateeb’s corpse had broken bones, gunshot wounds, cigarette burn marks, and mutilated genitals. Fifteen year-old Tamer Mohamed Al-Sharaae was also brutally tortured; beaten in the face, body and genitals while naked, with his bones and teeth broken. Mohammad Mahmoud al Nammour’s seventeen year-old body was returned to his family with burn marks on his chest, broken bones, and signs of beating on his body and face. Mohammad Khedr al Ghabreh, also seventeen, was repeatedly stabbed with bayonets. Even a four year-old girl, Afaf Mahmoud Saraqbi, showed signs of beating on her back. Adnan Hasan Omran, nine years-old, had burn marks from electrocution. Twelve year-old Mustafa Faysal Jarkas had burns all over his body from electrocution and cigarettes – his face was unrecognisable. Mohammad Obeida al-Hayek’s sixteen year-old body was covered with marks from lashings with electric cable. These examples of brutal torture only go part way to illustrating the true extent of repression. The Violations Documentation Center documents human rights abuses to the best of their ability, insisting upon names and verifiable evidence. The number of dead is likely to be far higher than recorded amidst the chaos of civil war.
The torture techniques deduced from these corpses are consistent with the systematised torture methods employed by Assad’s security apparatus. Human Rights Watch report “Torture Archipelago” identified twenty-one consistently used torture methods – ranging from electrocution, to falaqa (beating the victim with sticks, batons, or whips on the sole of their feet). Seven of the identified torture methods can be recognised from children’s corpses – prolonged and severe beating, beating with objects, falaqa, electrocution, pulling out fingernails, burning with hot water and cigarettes. Some torture methods, often psychological, cannot be identified from corpses due to a lack of physical evidence, such as bowing before photographs of Bashar al-Assad, solitary confinement, threats of sexual and physical violence, mock executions, and threats against the detainee’s family.
In addition to the harrowing stories of told by the bodies of dead torture victims, over 640 children have been detained by the regime to date. These detainees gain far less attention than they deserve. A nineteen year-old activist now living in Washington, D.C., Hadeel Kouki explained that she was detained and tortured three times in a six month period. While in detention soldiers tortured her and threatened the lives of her family. She suspects that her Christianity and gender led to worse torture than other inmates – a theory that can be transferred to the torture of children. These stories are rarely told in depth. Notes on detainees are far less detailed and Youtube videos are scarce – leading to reliance on the courage of released detainees and refugees. Former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch reported that children were subject to worse treatment than adults, particularly regarding sexual abuse. A former adult detainee, ‘Samih’, described the sexual abuse of children:
We would see them when the guards brought them back to the cell, it’s indescribable, you can’t talk about it. One boy came into the cell bleeding from behind. He couldn’t walk. It was something they just did to the boys. We would cry for them.
Released detainees accounted for torture methods that did not leave obvious torture marks on corpses, such as solitary confinement, sexual abuse, shabeh (hanging the victim from the ceiling by their wrists so that their toes barely touch the ground), exposure to cold and heat, sleep deprivation and malnourishment. Overall, at least thirteen of Human Rights Watch’s identified twenty-one torture methods have been used on children by the Syrian regime.
Geographically, detention centres have been established across the country in reaction to areas of unrest. Human Rights Watch located 27 torture centres by July 2012, and there are many more that have not yet been identified. Three of the 27 have reportedly been locations for torture of children (the Military Security Detention Center, Homs; Palestine Detention Center, Damascus; Branch 291, Damascus), but there are many others – children also reported torture in the Military Security Detention Centre in Tartous, and the Balooneh Detention Centre in Homs. In addition, detention centres have been created by the military on an ad-hoc basis according to immediate need. Amidst the chaos of civil war – coupled with the regime’s desperation to scare its population into submission – torture and interrogation locations are created wherever possible. Barracks and detentions centres are established in schools and hospitals, such as Bahithet Al-Badiyah school on Brazil Street, Homs, whilst a number of schools closed after snipers were placed on the roof, making education a physical threat to children. The punishment of children continues across the country, whether through torture, the suspension of education or limitation of medical facilities.
The Syrian security apparatus has not acknowledged the divide between children and adults, with some security forces ordered to arrest any male over the age of 14. Furthermore, in order to perpetuate the climate of fear, children have been put in detention facilities and tortured alongside adults. Children have been arrested alongside adults – they are seized in areas of unrest and taken with adults to ad-hoc detention centres. The country’s security services are in a state of frenzy.
The pertinence of children in the Syrian uprising has been undervalued by the Western media. Dara’a is often accepted as the “mother of the revolution” after the torture and murder of ‘kids’ sparked the ongoing 18-month protests. However, the continuing impetus that children offer to protestors is overlooked. An opposition activist from Damascus explained via email that the continuing murder of children propels revolutionaries forward – they are sons and daughters with ‘names and photos and innocent eyes, who remind us every moment why we started our revolution, and why we should continue till the end’. Parents have filmed their children’s often charred and tortured corpses in the hope that someone will pay attention and their deaths will not be in vain. Syrian protesters have adopted the smiling faces of young children as their icons. In order to comprehend the determination of Syrian opposition, the international community must challenge the over-simplified ‘Arab Spring’ paradigm and appreciate the impetus offered by the torture and mistreatment of children.