Siria, Giovani combattenti crescono

(di Doha Hassan, NOW). Ahmad, 15, has a gun strapped over his little shoulder and is wearing military fatigues. He is fighting on the frontline in plain sight of Syrian regime snipers scattered between destroyed buildings and streets. This desolate place is peopled only by members of the Unification Brigades (one of the Free Syrian Army’s main fighting brigades) striving to protect areas won from the regime.

Ahmad tells his story shyly with a gravely voice that belies his age, saying: “I have been fighting on this front for a year.” He is far from the only child soldier; the opposition brigades have many members aged 15 to 18 fighting within their ranks.

Ahmad’s story began when he was injured in the shelling of Maarrat al-Naaman, his hometown in Idlib province. He was taken to a field hospital in Aleppo and when he could not make it back to his village, he joined the FSA. The young man with still-childlike facial feature goes on: “Early on during the revolution, I took part in many protests. I only thought about joining the armed resistance when so many of my family members died. I was shot in the abdomen, so I took up weapons to defend my country.”

The conversation with Ahmad is cut short, as his brigade was waiting for him to reposition. He says: “I shall not put down my weapons after the regime’s fall. I shall stay with the FSA. Hajji Azizi (a FSA commander) is taking care of me; the fighters here are my brothers, and I love them very much.”

When a child turns from playfield to battlefield and from toys to guns and bombs, and when punishment for sloppy school grades transforms from a TV ban into arrest, torture, and murder, things take on another dimension. “Security [forces] raided my school as some friends and I were trying to organize a protest within it. I was forced to flee and the [school] administration had me expelled.” This is but one of the stories we heard there among many child fighters.

Abu An-Nasr, as his brigade comrades call him, is a sixteen year-old boy from Aleppo’s Haydariyya who joined the Unification Brigade about a year and a half ago: “The regime was killing us during protests and we had no weapons against them, not even knives. We were facing them with our voices and slogans, and they retaliated with bullets, arrests, and torture. I wish I had weapons back then, I would have killed them as they killed my friends.”

Syrian security forces arrested Abu An-Nasr at the Criminal Security local headquarters in Aleppo for taking part in protests, and subjected him to all kinds of torture. “I did not take up arms immediately upon being released; rather, I continued to take part in protests until the FSA came in. All I want after the regime falls is to resume my studies and become a successful person.”

Fear of death is no longer an obsession in liberated Syrian towns, as people have grown somewhat accustomed to its proximity. This truth has contributed to the growing phenomenon of child soldiers fighting within the FSA’s ranks. There is no difference between adult men and teenagers on the field except for these few moments when you can come near and talk to them.

“Ali” is yet another boy on the frontline, albeit with a fiercer manner of expressing himself. He takes a defensive stance even before being asked a question, sharply saying: “Look around at these empty buildings, all this destruction. We are fighting to bring down the regime so that people can return to their homes and live there safely.” Ali is fourteen years old, took up his gun only two months ago, and is nothing like his fellow child soldiers within the Free Syrian Army. He speaks confidently and with a fierce fighting spirit, asserting: “I am not too young to carry weapons. I can fight and even though my family would not let me at first, I did not listen to them and joined the FSA. I could not bear to see regime troops killing everyone around me. I had to do it. The gun is too heavy for my back but I have to carry it. I am helping the FSA to defend Syria with all our strength until the revolution prevails. Only then will I throw my gun away.”

“Most of them came to us after they lost their families. We took care of them. They wanted to take up weapons to protect their country and we will not stop them,” one brigade commander tells us. Indeed, most of the children I met joined the brigades, angry after the shelling of their houses and decimation of their families. Motivated by a “childish” instinct of revenge against the regime, they demanded to carry weapons to achieve their purpose. Brigade commanders merely allowed them to join the ranks of adult fighters, thus putting an end to a postponed childhood.