A Shocking Percentage of Civilians Killed in Syria Are Children

Only one group distinguishes combatants from civilians in counting deaths.
A mother and her son in Kos, Greece. (Photo: Brandon Stanton/'Humans of New York')
Sep 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

A refugee family interviewed in Kos, Greece, this week by the documentary project Humans of New York helped shed light on the scary reality of children living in war zones.

“They fired rockets from a mountain near our house,” a mother, whose name and native country were not mentioned. Teary-eyed, she draped an arm around her young son’s shoulder while he stared vacantly into the distance. “We’d tell him that there was nothing to worry about and that the rockets were far away, and they would never reach us.”

That illusion of safety was shattered one morning when a rocket hit the school bus in right front of her son, instantly killing four of his friends.

These kinds of fatal explosions are not uncommon in the four-year armed conflict in Syria, which started when President Bashar al-Assad’s police violently disrupted peaceful protests against his dictatorial regime. A new report shows that children are at a disproportionately high risk of being killed by bombings and other such attacks.

Children accounted for more than 23 percent of civilians who died in Syrian government–controlled areas between March 18, 2011, and Jan. 21, 2015, according to a study by global health experts that was published Wednesday in The BMJ, the British medical journal. Nearly two-thirds of those deaths were caused by tank shells alone. In areas controlled by non-state armed groups such as the opposition or Islamic State factions, children comprised more than 16 percent of violent civilian deaths during that period. A majority of the deaths were caused by shelling and air bombardment, mainly by the government.

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Led by Debarati Guha-Sapir, an epidemiologist and a professor at the University of Louvain School of Public Health, the team of researchers drew their conclusions by analyzing data provided by the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria, a nongovernmental organization that tracks war-related deaths. Of the four primary groups that provide data about the Syrian conflict to the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the VDC is the only one that distinguishes between civilian and combatant deaths, according to the researchers.

Overall, the study found that almost a quarter of all Syrian civilians killed were women and children, who also faced increased odds of death by explosive weapons and chemical weaponry, as opposed to shootings, compared with civilian men. In areas both controlled by government and not, women and children were significantly more likely than men to die from air bombardment, shells, and chemical weapons.

“Their findings should give pause to anyone who thinks there can be a safe hiding place for women and children when high explosives are being used in populated areas, or who imagines that Syria’s many bombed-out apartment blocks must have first been emptied of civilians,” Hamit Dardagan, cofounder of the advocacy group Every Casualty Worldwide, wrote in an editorial published alongside the report. Since 2007, Dardagan’s organization has been working with human rights organizations to develop standards for recording casualties and pushing them to better track and protect civilians.

The research published in The BMJ also provides further context for why a record number of refugees—more than half a million, according to the latest figure—have embarked on the dangerous journey to seek asylum in Europe. An estimated 2,500 refugees and migrants have died or gone missing along the way this year, according to a United Nations statement issued in late August; others have counted 25,000 deaths going back to the late 1980s. In September, a photograph of Aylan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the Turkish shore, brought greater attention to the hazards of the Mediterranean crossing. Kurdi, his mother, and his brother were attempting to reach Kos.