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Save the Children: explosive weapons causing severe harm to children in Syria

Childhood Under Fire’ highlights the grave humanitarian suffering of children in Syria and neighbouring countries

Save the Children published a report on 13 March that bears testimony to the grave impact of two years of fighting on children in Syria. Few children have been spared the effects of the conflict involving bombardment and shelling with explosive weapons of their homes, neighbourhoods and schools. Children are being deprived of food, water, health care, education and safety. At least 2 million children are in need of assistance in Syria.

The report ‘Childhood Under Fire‘ draws on testimonies of children and their parents, and on data collected by Save the Children and others. It sets out how the lives and health of children in Syria are threatened, including of children belonging to Palestinian, Iraqi and other refugee communities in Syria.

The use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas is a particular concern. This is also clear from a recent briefing by Amnesty International, ‘Syria: Government Bombs Rain on Civilians’, which documents grave harm to civilians, many of them children, from shelling and air bombardment, including the use of ballistic missiles, as well as cluster munitions which have been banned under international law.

Children are being killed and injured by sustained shelling and bombardment. In one area of Damascus, formerly home to almost 2 million people, heavy explosive weapons were used in 247 separate recorded incidents in January 2013 alone. Use of such weapons in populated areas exposes children and their families to an extreme risk of harm. According to Save the Children, there are multiple reports from across Syria of blasts from explosive weapons killing several children at once. An increasing number of children are being admitted to hospitals with burns, gunshot wounds, and injuries from explosions. Some children have been severely injured; some have been permanently disabled.

The violence also causes great emotional distress to children and leaves them with a pervading and persistent feeling of fear. According to research cited in the report, three in every four Syrian refugee children have experienced the death of a loved one due to the conflict.

“Before the crisis we used to play outside. We weren’t scared. Now? We stay inside and be afraid. That is it.
…My home has been destroyed. We were in it when it was hit, and when it fell. I feel as though all of Syria has been destroyed.” (‘Saba’, 13)

Beyond its direct impact on children’s mental and physical health, the use of explosive weapons has also caused destruction of infrastructure on a massive scale. According to the report, the fighting has damaged or destroyed an estimated 2.9 million buildings. The destruction indirectly affects the survival and wellbeing of children in a variety of ways.

Tens of thousands of people were forced to leave their place of residence. Around 80,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are living in desperate shelter conditions, sleeping out in caves, parks or barns. Some families have been displaced repeatedly due to rapidly changing front lines, and many children have become separated from their parents. As of March 2013, there were more than 1 million people – 52% of them children – registered as refugees with UNCHR or awaiting registration.

“Why did we leave? We left because of the explosions, the constant shelling. Everything was a struggle, nothing was available – no food, no water.” (‘Abu’, a father)

“My daughter is 13 years old and goes crazy every time she hears a noise. Once the bombs started we ran… I couldn’t take my son’s wheelchair, so I had to carry him, and run. We thought it is better for us to die in the street than under the rubble of our house.” (‘Hiba’, a mother)

Health care infrastructure has been severely affected by shelling and bombardments, and hospitals and medical professionals have even been directly targeted. In Deir ez Zor governorate, every single hospital has been damaged; 50% of doctors are reported to have fled Homs; Production of medical supplies in Syria has slowed down significantly. Aside from conflict-related difficulties to access health care services, the serious degradation or complete lack of pre-natal and neo-natal care, woeful conditions for paediatric patients in many health facilities, and the disruption of routine vaccinations greatly affects children’s health.

Damage to schools and school supplies and the use of educational facilities and supplies for other purposes deprives children of a safe learning environment, threatening their futures as well as that of the country.

“At the beginning… there wasn’t shelling at my school, but after some time the shelling started. I stopped going to school when the shelling started. It wasn’t safe. I feel sad that my school was burned because my school reminds me of my friends. I love going to school.” (‘Noura’, 10)

Save the Children estimates that at least 2 million children, within Syria are in desperate need of humanitarian assistance, and urges the international community to take stronger action to support humanitarian efforts to ensure that children and their families can receive the assistance they so desperately need.

Save the Children UK is a founding member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW). INEW members have previously voiced strong concern at the severe harm to civilians, including children, caused by the use of explosive weapons in populated areas in Syria [http://www.inew.org/resources/wide-of-the-mark-syria-and-the-use-of-explosive-weapons-with-wide-area-effects].

Explosive weapons can affect a wide area around the point of detonation with blast and fragmentation. INEW shares Save the Children’s view presented in the report that due to the unacceptable risk they pose to children and other civilians, such weapons should not be used in populated areas. This is also the position of the UN Special Representative to the Secretary General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict. In her annual report, presented in August last year, the SRSG said that explosive weapons “have a devastating impact on civilians, including children, especially when used in highly populated areas”. She also noted that explosive weapons “cause long-lasting harm by damaging children’s emotional stability, education and future opportunities” and called on states to refrain from using explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas.

INEW calls on states and other actors to
− Acknowledge that the use of explosive weapons in populated areas tends to cause severe harm to individuals and communities and furthers suffering by damaging vital infrastructure;
− Strive to avoid such harm and suffering in any situation, and recognise the need to end the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas;
− Review and strengthen national policies and practices on use of explosive weapons, develop stronger international standards;
− Gather and make available relevant data, work for the full realisation of the rights of victims and survivors.

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