Monday 28 August 2017

Children escaping the Syrian city of Raqqa have told Save the Children about the trauma of living under ISIS and more recently, the military campaign to retake the city. 

Children described a life of unthinkable brutality, having witnessed executions and explosions at close quarters over several years. Beheadings and bombs have become a part of normal life for Raqqa’s children. The charity warns the psychological scars they carry could take years, even decades, to heal.

13-year-old Raashida* said:

“The other day ISIS beheaded people and left their bodies on the ground. We saw this and I couldn’t handle it. I wanted to sleep but I couldn’t when I remembered what I saw. And I wouldn’t sleep, I would stay awake because of how scared I was. Now I sleep normally because no one is getting beheaded here.”




13-year-old Faridah* said:

“If a woman does something wrong ISIS will stone her with stones. And if someone smokes, the fingers of the hand he used to smoke are cut off. There is someone, I don’t know what he said, but they sewed his mouth. He said something about ISIS and they sewed his mouth! And while they were whipping him, blood came out of his mouth. Poor man.”



Besides the daily acts of violence they’ve had to endure, Raqqa’s children also described a life of despair at the lack of opportunities. They recalled being cooped up inside their homes for months on end, unable to play or go to school, with no child-friendly spaces left for them to be children.

Parks and other public spaces have been turned into execution grounds, littered with severed heads and decomposing bodies. In addition, recent reports of airstrikes killing dozens of civilians means families are facing an impossible decision: stay and risk being bombed or leave and risk being shot at by ISIS or stepping on a landmine.

Aoun* (Raashida’s father) said:

“There’s no childhood anymore, children have forgotten. There are no schools anymore, no toys, and even if the children want to go to school they are going to be taught how to fight…but there is no actual education…I have a son who should be in his last year of primary school, yet he still doesn’t know how to read and write.” 

In a recent study on the mental health of children escaping ISIS in northern Iraq, Save the Children discovered that many of the children surveyed displayed signs of ‘toxic stress’ – a dangerous state where the body is in a constant ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode. The loss of loved ones was the biggest cause of distress, with a staggering 90% of children surveyed reporting the loss of at least one family member through death, separation during escape or abduction.

The lack of access to communities inside Raqqa makes it difficult to assess the well-being of children still stuck there, but the stories of those who’ve escaped paints a bleak picture. Most of Raqqa’s 300,000 residents have fled the city. By some estimates there are only between 18,000 and 25,000[1] people left, almost half of them children, as the coalition aims to drive ISIS out following a similar operation in Mosul in neighbouring Iraq.

As the battle for Raqqa intensifies over the coming days and weeks, civilians need to be able to leave safely and not be used as human shields by ISIS nor face bombardment by airstrikes. Protecting children caught up in the horrors of war must be a priority.

Sonia Khush, Syria Country Director, Save the Children, said:

“Children must be able to leave Raqqa without fear of violence or death, or being forced to walk for days through minefields to reach safety. 

“It’s crucial that the children who’ve made it out alive are provided with psychological support to help them deal with the trauma of witnessing senseless violence and brutality. 

“Raqqa’s children might look normal on the outside but inside many are tormented by what they’ve seen. The children of Raqqa didn’t ask for the nightmares and memories of seeing loved ones die right in front of them. We risk condemning a generation of children to a lifetime of suffering unless their mental health needs are addressed.”