Children of Syria’s Aleppo bear brunt of onslaught

Sarah El Deeb
Associated Press

Beirut — The 6-year-old girl was found trapped under the rubble of her home, destroyed by an airstrike in Syria’s rebel-held city of Aleppo. “Dust!” she wailed as rescue workers pried away the stones and debris on top of her, finally freeing her and placing her on a stretcher as she screamed for her father.

“Forget the dust. I’ll wash your face and give you water. Come on, sweetheart,” one rescuer said.

Bruised and battered but alive, Ghazl Qassem was among the lucky survivors of the attack earlier this week. Four days later, rescue workers were still digging Friday through the rubble of the apartment building after pulling out the bodies of 20 people, including nine children, most from Ghazl’s family. They were searching for at least three others believed inside.

At least 96 children are among the 320 people killed in Aleppo since a cease-fire collapsed on Sept. 19, according to UNICEF, as Syrian and Russian warplanes barrage the city’s eastern opposition neighborhoods, trying to crush more than five years of resistance there. Almost a third of the 840 people wounded over the same period are children, according to the World Health Organization.

“Aleppo is one of the most dangerous places in the world, and in the last week it has become perhaps the most dangerous place in the world for children,” Juliette Touma, regional chief of communications for the U.N children’s agency, told the Associated Press.

Nearly 300,000 people — including 100,000 children — are trapped in Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern districts, a pocket of resistance some eight miles long and three miles wide that civil defense workers say has been hit by 1,900 bombs in the past week. The campaign has wreaked destruction on hospitals, clinics, residential buildings, water stations and electric generators.

Parents desperately struggling to keep their families safe fear the threat of an imminent ground offensive. They hold little hope for the future, with no regular schooling and little access to nutritious food. Images of wounded and screaming children, covered in dust or being pulled out of rubble, have become a daily reality in Aleppo.

“We are totally resigned to God’s will,” said Khaled Sakka, a father of 10 children, all under the age of 14. He, his three wives and the children all sleep in one room in the middle of the house, the only safety measure they have against the nightly airstrikes.

“The bombs are bringing down five-story buildings. They are even reaching bunkers,” he said.

Wounded children are often left untreated, sometimes to die, in Aleppo’s overwhelmed hospitals. Only 30 doctors remain in opposition-held neighborhoods: One physician for every 10,000 people, compared to a peacetime standard of one for every 1,000, Touma said.

“It is very difficult to know how many (children) are traumatized, but one would imagine every single one is impacted by the horrors, especially with the intensification of the violence in the past week,” she said.

So-called bunker-busting bombs, designed to target underground structures, have been widely used, possibly to crush tunnels or bunkers used as refuge by the thousands of rebel fighters defending the districts.

But the powerful bombs also threaten the underground shelters where civilians take refuge and where children go to school. For the past several years, most classes have been held in basements because of the constant fighting and threat of airstrikes.