Growing up, it appeared as if every Syrian child was being recruited for the armed forces. For those of my generation of Palestinian refugees, secondary school was a ritual of military uniforms and drill instruction organized by al-Shabiba, the youth-wing of the ruling Ba’ath Party.
These rituals were not about combat or arms training. I never learned how to use a weapon; instead, they were about the obedience and discipline of military command. Teaching us to obey orders without dissent or criticism, we learned by heart the chant “Do as you’re told” and conscientious objection would have to wait until after doing as told. Of course, in a dictatorship, this last bit was perfunctory and meaningless.
Saying no would be treason. It might not lead you to jail, but your parents might become suspect in the eyes of the state. Even within the family you’re taught to obey. Growing up in Syria, there was always this sense of the Big Brother from Orwell’s 1984, endlessly monitoring you and duping you into thinking that he was all-knowing and all-seeing, like God.
In 2000, upon succeeding his father, Hafez, Bashar al-Assad ended military drills in the nation’s schools. Although a less militaristic curriculum was enforced, the Ba’ath regime’s martial pedagogical pretensions were never truly uprooted and were revived after the civil war erupted. Today, al-Shabiba is an auxiliary militia for the Assad war machine, its young men often triumphantly driving into town and looting and harassing locals still in shock after the regime’s aerial bombing campaigns.
Unlike their Syrian counterparts, Palestinian refugee children were first targeted for armed recruitment by Palestinian factions following the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. I still remember a woman who stopped a bus headed to Baghdad and started yelling at her sixteen-year old son to get off. The teenage boy was being sent off to fight the Americans. A Syrian security officer told her to “shut up.” Instead, she protested. “No countries accept to take us in. We only ever get a visa to wherever death awaits us. I want my son alive, I will not send him to fight and die in Iraq. For whom? For what?”
Fatah al-Intifada first started to recruit children during the 2003 Iraq War and has resumed the practice since Syria’s own descent into war after 2011. The organization is a dissident off-shoot of the Fatah faction that dominates the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank and has been backed by the Syrian regime since 1982. It is presently active in Syrian and Lebanese refugee camps.
Economic hardship forces families to seek whatever support they can muster. Fatah al-Intifada exploits the grim predicament of poor families in Palestinian camps. In the Jaramana refugee camp, for example, eight kilometers southeast of Damascus, at least 400 teenagers between the ages of fourteen and sixteen were recruited in exchange for a monthly $20 paid to their families. A camp survivor told me that 65 to 70 percent of the fighters he saw at the checkpoints controlled by the PFLP-GC [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine–General Command, a pro-Assad Palestinian faction] and Fatah al-Intifada are boys between the ages of fourteen and seventeen.
In the city of Qudsaya, home to about 30,000 Palestinians displaced from Damascus’ Yarmouk camp, children are joining the anti-regime Free Syrian Army (FSA) to win favor with the local people. Many parents believe that the only way to convince Syrian armed factions opposed to the regime that not all Palestinians are sympathetic to the pro-regime Fatah al-Intifada or the PFLP-GC is by sending their children to join the FSA. Anti-regime groups, for their part, often arrest and humiliate Palestinians and even prohibit humanitarian assistance from entering the camps. Sending your child to join the FSA has become one way of coping with the hardships of war.
Schools are hard to come by in Qudsaya. The Syrian NGO, Jafra Foundation for Relief and Youth Development, has taken over three schools abandoned by UNRWA, which has been forced to wind down its operations in the camp due to deteriorating security conditions. According to Jafra Director Wasem Sabaneh, the foundation services over 13,000 students across Syria. In his view, educational opportunity is a way to stanch the hemorrhage of children who otherwise would have nothing to do and nowhere to go but join the ranks of armed groups. But Jafra is also stretched to its limits. Inside Yarmouk camp, one school may end up closing this year for lack of funds, leaving Yarmouk with only two schools.
Prior to the civil war, Yarmouk had fifteen schools operated by UNRWA and seven public schools. Paralleling the rapidly declining population, which has seen less than 20,000 residents remain from a pre-war population of roughly 150,000 Palestinians, the camp’s public infrastructure had greatly deteriorated. Jafra attempts to maintain whatever semblance of normal life and civility may be salvaged, but the foundation must bow down to brute force. Jafra had to strip pages from state textbooks glorifying the Syrian regime under orders from the FSA, and now ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have ordered the organization to stop classes on Islam until new instructional booklets are published reflecting their ideology.
Furthermore, Jafra cannot entirely protect students from the war’s impact. Nothing illustrates this better than the fact that recruitment often starts at these very schools. Young school boys provide a captive audience and al-Nusra militiamen storm into classrooms and harangue teenage boys to join the so-called jihad with pieties about the obligation of fighting infidels and reminders of the nymphs awaiting them in paradise following their martyrdom. Afterwards, mosque gatherings are held where the boys are further indoctrinated to prepare them for the next phase of their recruitment, usually in the form of military training somewhere in the al-Hajar area south of Yarmouk.
Since June, an estimated seventy-five children between seven and thirteen-years-old are being trained to fight in the name of God. Al-Nusra places them at checkpoints on the frontlines to monitor the movements of their adversaries on the other side. By the end of 2015, many of them will be deemed ready for battle. Often these children are used for suicide operations or to drive car bombs across enemy lines.
A Palestinian youth, born and raised in Yarmouk and who last month left the camp for Lebanon, related one particular incident that exemplifies the instrumentalization of children by Islamist and secular militias:
“You have to be ready when a commander from al-Nusra or ISIS calls you to suicide. The leader summoned two kids who were no older than 14 years old and asked them to drive the [suicide] cars. When one of the kids asked for permission to say goodbye to his friend, the commander shouted at him: ‘You don’t have time, knucklehead! Now get in the car!’ The commander was not asking them to go perform their duty and fight, he was just angry. When remembering his face now, it’s similar to the anger that a husband gets when arguing with his wife. This man was about kill two kids because he was angry. I doubt that he believes in God, or rather, I’m sure he doesn’t, because he’s the same commander who sells hash [cannabis] to people inside the camp. And the same one that buys hash from the PFLP-GC, who are also using child recruits to transport hash to al-Nusra fighters in the camp.”
Using children as market traders is also commonplace inside Yarmouk. Children are often sent by ISIS to local markets inside the camp and surrounding neighborhoods with orders to buy up all the goods. ISIS later resells them at a premium in their own shops, which are staffed by – whom else? – children.
Before ISIS overran Yarmouk on April 1, Jafra operated two rec centers aimed at keeping children occupied and supported so as to keep them away from the armed conflict. These provided over 1,000 children with educational and psychological support. According to Jafra, what is happening to children inside Yarmouk is being repeated across Syria. Another five years, and an entire generation will have been lost to ISIS’s dogmatism and fanaticism, they say. ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have shown themselves more than willing to exploit the international neglect that has left Syrian families living in conditions of horrific squalor and desperation. Two weeks ago, I spoke to a former resident of Yarmouk who reported that even now when he’s far away from the camp’s devastation, it’s still “hard to swallow a bite [of bread], hard for me to eat and forget the kids inside the camp who no longer know what a loaf of bread looks like, kids who grew up under siege and don’t know what fruit looks like. A small kid inside the camp might literally be unable to differentiate between an apple and a banana.”
Last Eid [al-Fitr, which fell on July 12 this year], an eleven-year-old child reportedly entered Yarmouk’s central square which had been festively set up for the holiday and began to yell, demanding that the celebratory music be turned off and for so-called jihadi songs to be played instead. The child then climbed the light pole, ripped off the Palestinian flag and replaced it with al-Nusra’s. Upon getting back down he made one last pronouncement, ordering women to leave the square in accordance with the Islamic prohibition on the intermingling of men and women who are not related.
For me, who was born in the camp and lived there for thirty-two years of my life this was shocking to hear. Yarmouk was known for its secular lifestyle and stood apart from the nearby more socially conservative neighborhoods of al-Zahera and al-Midan. But now, an eleven-year-old could strut around in the name of Jihad. According to sources inside the camp, many individuals have been arrested by al-Nusra and ISIS after children, recruited as informers and street snitches, reported alleged transgressions. One individual, who is still being held, was reportedly arrested following the testimony of a five-year-old.
Big Brother is being recruited from within the family.
Nidal Bitari is a Syrian Palestinian journalist from Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in political sociology from Damascus University. He left Syria for Lebanon in December 2011, and then came to the United States in April 2013. From the time he left the camp, he has been in almost daily contact with friends and colleagues in the camp.
Related article: Journal of Palestine Studies: Yarmuk Refugee Camp and the Syrian Uprising: A View from Within by Nidal Bitari.