Children's stories hardest to bear

By Kate Shuttleworth

It's three years since the civil war in Syria began and there is still no end in sight to the tragedy that has resulted in the deaths of 150,000. More than two million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries.

Some children, such as this girl carrying her brother, must cope without their parents.
Some children, such as this girl carrying her brother, must cope without their parents.

Behind a closed curtain a Syrian man in his mid-30s is preparing himself and his 3-year-old daughter for an onslaught. He tries to keep her and himself calm but it doesn't work.

I have named the man Sayid to protect his identity. In the unlikely location of Western Galilee Medical Centre in Nahariya in northern Israel, he stands holding his daughter Mais tightly, trying to comfort her while a group of about 12 journalists aim their cameras and microphones at them.

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Sayid turns his back to the journalists with Mais nestled into his chest, her face hidden as he tells his story to media for the first time. He lifts his eyes to the ceiling as he recalls the horror of the day a Syrian government missile tipped with cluster munition exploded through the roof of his home in Daraa on February 19.

The fighting and damage to parts of Syria, such as this street in Damascus, have displaced 6.5 million Syrians inside and 2.5 million outside the country, the United Nations says. Photo / AP
The fighting and damage to parts of Syria, such as this street in Damascus, have displaced 6.5 million Syrians inside and 2.5 million outside the country, the United Nations says. Photo / AP

His Arabic is formal and as he recounts the events he barely makes three sentences before the grief sets in and he is hit by the reality of his own story. He has to force the rest of the details out through his cries and those of his daughter who is in pain from her stitches.

Sayid's hand was injured, but he had no idea there would be more explosions. He ran to grab his twins and his wife told him to take them to the basement bunker as a precaution. As they began to run the cluster munition exploded. The shrapnel from the explosion pierced Mais' brain, leaving her with horrific injuries. Her brother was killed instantly, his body torn apart before their eyes. Sayid sobs at the memory.

His wife survived with minor injuries, but they don't know where she is now, or if she's alive. She told Sayid to take their daughter to the border for treatment. The Syrian Free Army took them to a field hospital near Israel's Golan Heights, then the Israeli Defence Force transferred them to the hospital.

Israeli hospitals have treated about 1000 Syrians despite the countries being sworn enemies.
Israeli hospitals have treated about 1000 Syrians despite the countries being sworn enemies.

Israel has treated about 1000 Syrians in four hospitals despite the two countries being sworn enemies.

Four days after I arrived in Israel last year I visited Ziv hospital in the northern Israeli city of Safed near the Israel/Syria border. I met 8-year-old Aya and her mother Om Omar - both injured by shrapnel. The bones in Aya's right leg were shattered, she had five sessions of reconstructive surgery saving her leg from amputation. Her leg is now held together by a brace. Om Omar's foot was badly severed, the flesh and bone exposed.

The pair were calm when I spoke to them. Plastic surgeon Kassis Shokrey kept them comfortable while he told their story, posing questions to them in Arabic. The concept of being in Israel hadn't really registered for Aya.

I've also met Syrians in towns in Jordan and the refugee camp there who have been injured.

But after hearing Sayid's story I couldn't write for three days and I put it down to feeling that I'd become part of the problem by further traumatising him and his daughter. When I looked over my shoulder as we left the hospital, I saw him alone in the cubicle with Mais crying and I was heartbroken, thinking of them soon heading back across the border to Syria. On the other hand, the act of him telling his story could well be one small step on a long path to healing. I didn't know.
I was angry at the hospital for allowing a distraught man and a small girl who had recently come out of a coma to be paraded before the media and I wasn't sure I could stomach another hospital visit. But I've calmed down. Speaking to hospital staff again I realise they have gone above and beyond to help the 230 Syrians who have come through their doors.

Sara Paperin from the international affairs department of the hospital assured me Sayid and the other patients have all had social workers to help them since they arrived from Syria.

"All patients are immediately being seen by social workers, psychologists and psychiatrists as soon as their medical condition allows. With families that need to be reunited or children that are alone, there is clearly special attention given to them," she said.

It seems the anger and the shock I experienced is a daily event for the staff, who also need support dealing with the pain they see. Paperin said just weeks ago the staff clown came to her office in tears after a year of absorbing the pain of the children.

"We have all taken on ourselves so much of their suffering. To react in any other way simply wouldn't be human," she said.

A doctor in the hospital's pediatric intensive care unit, Dr Yoav Hoffman, has been dealing with children and young adults with severe wounds. He's drawn a disturbing conclusion after the fifth young person arrived with the same type of spinal wound.

He thought it was a mistake after treating the first young patient with a gunshot wound directly to the lumbar (lower) spine, but after the fifth young Syrian arrived with the same injury he could only conclude it was deliberate.

"I'm sure the snipers hit the spine on purpose," he said.

"If you want to kill a man, or a child you put a bullet in his head or heart. They purposely put a bullet in the lumbar spine so the child would suffer. I don't have any other explanation. It wasn't just a few bullets randomly, it was a sniper who knew exactly what he was doing, it's cruel. I almost cried when I was seeing it because it was very clear."

At least five were partially or fully paralysed from the spinal shots and returned to Syria in wheelchairs.

Hoffman has treated 25 severely wounded young people from a 2-month-old baby to a 17-year-old.

Other staff at the hospital recognised and noted the direct and deliberate nature of the injuries the children suffered.

The director of the Neurosurgical Department at the hospital, Professor Jean Soustiel, said many were dying instantly and those who had made it to the hospital arrived after days suffering in the field. "We have young children right now who have been shot in the head or who are victims of blast injuries at a very young age. It's very difficult to understand how this can happen, that a child is shot from a very close distance."

Not all the children arrive with their parents. Hoffman treated a 6-year-old boy for horrific head wounds and despite excellent care, he died alone in the hospital.

Several weeks ago two girls aged 3 and 5 were treated at the hospital without any family. The 5-year-old became the mother to her younger sister, who had a head injury from shrapnel entering her skull and eye. She lost one eye. It was later discovered that their mother was also at the hospital, with her face badly damaged. Her psychological condition was so fragile the hospital waited until she was stable enough to be reintroduced to her small daughters. The girls could not recognise her.

Psychologists worked intensively to build a family connection before the family were returned to Syria.

"There are some wounds I am sure the entire staff will internalise for the rest of their lives," said Paperin.

- APNZ

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