The Lost Child in Oversized Shoes

Wars are crowded with male faces, weapons and gruesome images. We know there are other things happening but we are struck anew when we are there on the ground to see for ourselves. In late January 2014, I had the chance to go inside Syria when a group of friends decided to visit liberated areas and deliver baby milk, winter clothes and some aid for local initiatives. More than 60 per cent of Syria is no longer under regime control, and these islands of vulnerable freedom are now called the liberated areas. What struck me first was the huge number of families, children and elderly people we encountered everywhere. Their faces are usually absent from war reporting. But their suffering is the reality of any conflict.
The first Syrians we came across at the edge of a small town north of Aleppo were two small children. The expressions on their faces hit us like bullets. Young faces but with ancient, sorrowful eyes. There, as the sun was setting, they were cycling around rubble and shelled buildings. What we didn’t realise then was that we were going to see the same vacant, distant expressions on the face of every child. I was always relieved when some kid during our journey broke into tears at the mention of a killed parent, sibling or relative. The tears would soften the faces of these already aged children. 
We were able to go further south into the country all the way to the famous Kafranbel, located south of Aleppo and north of Hamah, a town known for its civic activism, creative signs and large posters. We met many of the local artists and activists. But the faces of the children haunted me everywhere. Their eyes followed me even after we had left a place. 
In one small town, we were able to attend an exhibition of children’s art that was held inside a cave to avoid the danger of sudden air raids. But it wasn’t necessarily protected from an explosive barrel that could penetrate the earth into the belly of the cave. One of the drawings depicted a little bear with its heart cut up, the wool filling showing, and an eye falling out. 
There were drawings of body parts strewn around houses. One six-year-old girl had drawn rifles, Scud missiles, MiG-26 fighter jets and other weapons. The picture revealed a child whose innocence had been stolen by detailed military expertise. 
It seemed people were walking normally everywhere in all the towns we passed, or sitting in front of their porches, but mostly in sombre silence. The houses we visited were so orderly, with spotless kitchens—perhaps the women’s attempt to maintain sanity and order in a world that had gone chaotically insane. I had missed all this. Sometimes I had to stand still and become aware of the pine-scented air and the scene of the surrounding hills. I had not been to Syria for the previous six years.