© UNICEF/UNI131539/Romenzi

Syrian children are often thought to be caught in the crossfire as incidental victims in an adult’s war. In fact, thousands are being deliberately attacked in the most unimaginable ways.

Tuesday 15 March marks five years since the conflict began.
That means an estimated 2.9 million Syrian children under the age of five have spent their entire lives in a war zone.

They will never know the Syria their parents remember. Bombs have turned classrooms, health centres and parks to rubble. The streets where they should be able to play are blocked by checkpoints or littered with explosive remnants of war, while schools and hospitals have closed in the thousands.

Mortar fire and barrel bombs have been used for indiscriminate attacks on heavily populated civilian areas where the deaths and maiming of children are inevitable. No place is safe anymore.
Read UNICEF's new report: No Place for Children - The impact of five years of war on Syrian children and their childhoods
“An airplane dropped a barrel bomb on our school. The poorest people ran away after the bomb, which shattered all the windows in our house. I was hurt when they dropped another bomb. I got shrapnel fragments in my face and back…Some of my friends are frightened of me because of the scar on my face. They don’t want to play with me.” – Safi, nine years old. Image: © UNICEF/UNI159514/Yurtsever

Children are not just accidental victims. They are being attacked as targets of war.

In the last couple of years, UNICEF and the UN have verified thousands of grave violations against children and these only represent the tip of the iceberg.
~ The following section includes reports of violence which may be distressing and are not suitable for young readers. Click here to skip to UNICEF's plan of action.

Children have tried to escape from starvation in besieged towns, only to be shot by snipers or killed in minefields.

They have been arrested at their schools, detained in ‘security centres’ and tortured into confessions.

Sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war, with boys as young as 13 repeatedly raped and young girls impregnated. Others have been abducted, bought and sold as sex slaves.

The recruitment and use of children in armed combat has become routine, with boys and girls as young as seven indoctrinated and forced to commit extreme violence. Children have been made to participate in the beheading of soldiers and others recruited as suicide bombers. One group of children was reportedly forced at gunpoint to stand in the way of tanks as they entered town.

Civilians have been made to join in the stoning of a 14-year-old girl and children encouraged to play “football” with decapitated heads.

Parents have been forced to watch as their 15-year-old boy was accused of adultery and publicly executed. His corpse was left on display for three days.

These are not the atrocities of long-past wars, of history books or period films.

These things are happening to children right now, in 2016, and our response will be judged in the history books of the next generation.
The last time 11-year-old Nuha saw her brother, he was heading out to get her a scoop of her favourite ice-cream in the Old City of Homs. He was struck by a mortar attack and never returned. “I imagine him coming back with an ice-cream in his hand,” Nuha said, standing quietly on the spot where he died. Image: ©UNICEF/Syria-2015/Sanadiki

Five steps to save a generation

“I don’t know how I see the future. I am kind of in between hopeful and hopeless. Maybe in time I will be able to answer this question. I just wish there was such a power on earth that could bring back the things I have lost.” - Mohammed, 13, a refugee in Turkey.

It is not too late for today’s young Syrians. They continue to hope for a life of dignity and possibility. They can still cherish dreams of peace and have the chance to fulfil them.

Business as usual is not an option. UNICEF is urging all those with responsibility towards Syria's children to take five urgent actions.

1. Protect children

Ending the violations of children’s rights in Syria has to be a priority while the search for peace continues. All parties to the conflict in Syria have an obligation to respect International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights Law, including immediately ending all attacks on education and health facilities, and preventing the killing and maiming, abduction, torture, detention and recruitment of children.

2. Lift the sieges and allow full humanitarian access

This should not be a solitary gesture of good will. All parties to the conflict must enable immediate, unhindered and sustained access to all hard to reach and besieged areas so humanitarian teams can reach trapped children in need – not only to provide them with essential supplies and on-site treatment, but to evacuate wounded and sick children.

3. Invest in learning

UNICEF and its partners in the No Lost Generation initiative are appealing for funding for around four million children to access education. Keeping these children in school is one of the greatest challenges of the conflict but absolutely essential to the future of a generation.

4. Restore dignity

Lasting peace depends on restoring dignity to these children and protecting their rights no matter where they are. To let go of despair and pain, they need stability and consistent support. They need to reconnect to a nurturing society. This means developing clear and fair policies to protect children and help them cope with the extreme stresses they face.

5. Turn pledges into commitments

Funding targets are not being met while children's needs continue to grow. Humanitarian appeals for Syria in 2015 were only half-funded. Pledges made during the London donors conference last February are welcome and timely. Now they need to be delivered in full, and soon.

Shattered cities cannot be rebuilt in a year – and neither can shattered lives.

How you can help

UNICEF is delivering emergency supplies, support and protection to millions of children but, as the crisis enters its sixth year, our resources are dangerously low and we need your help.
Your support can transform lives. It can provide life-saving health supplies, water and therapeutic food. It can help us set up safe spaces for children to play, give them the pyschosocial support they need to heal, and it can open up worlds of opportunity by giving eager young minds a chance to learn.
Please give generously to help the children of Syria today.