After three years under siege, children in Eastern Ghouta are forced to steal and pray for their survival. To attain matters worse, those who are caught are subjected to Jaish al-Islam’s harsh judicial system- where the penalty can be prison or physical labor .
ISTANBUL – It was a hot day in August 2016 when two brothers in the besieged southwest Syrian town of Douma lingered outside the downtown mosque during the midday prayer. Grabbing a pair of men’s shoes as the owner prayed inside, the two boys ran away with the contraband. They could sell them for up to 500 Syrian pounds( around$ 2. 50 ), enough to buy a bag of bread.
The sons didn’t make it very far with their stolen goods. Before they had a chance to sell the shoes, 10 -year-old Bilal and his 15 -year-old brother Ibrahim were arrested by an opponent fighter who had spotted them outside the mosque.
“All we wanted, my brother and I, was to buy some food, and take it to our mom, ” told Bilal. “We thought that whoever had left their shoes at the gate would not mind, because their houses were close to the mosque, and they would not stroll far barefoot.”
Food is hard to come by in Douma. Situated in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs, only 6 miles( 10 km) from the capital Damascus, the town of nearly 140, 000 people has been under siege by government forces-out since 2013. Little international aid has constructed it inside in the past four years, and children are increasingly vulnerable in the unrelenting conditions of siege and war.
At least 15,099 infants( under the age of 18) have been killed in Syria’s war, according to a September 2016 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. A Save the Children report earlier this year found that 7. 5 million children are negatively impacted by the ongoing war, 2 million of whom are not attending school. Among that number were Ibrahim and Bilal.
The boys’ father was killed by a government airstrike on Douma in May 2015- an attack that left Bilal with merely one foot.( Ibrahim would later share the same fate as his father in a regime airstrike more than a year later .) With their mother, Um Ibrahim, left to provide for her children by herself, the brothers tried to adjust to the stiffening siege and the family’s precarious situation. They did not attend school, but instead spent their days collecting plastic objects and selling them for loose change. When all the plastic had been scavenged from the street, they resorted to begging for money, and- ultimately- a failed attempt to steal shoes.
The fighter who had caught the sons was a member of Jaish al-Islam, one of the largest opposing factions in Eastern Ghouta. The armed opposition group controls Douma’s internal affairs, including a judiciary system based on their interpreting of Islamic Sharia law. Bilal and Ibrahim were referred to a Sharia court, where the magistrate sentenced Bilal to one month in prison and Ibrahim to one month of unpaid labor.
“I did not know that my sons were roaming the street praying for money until they were arrested, ” told Um Ibrahim, who asked that her real name be omitted for security reasons. “I was shocked that the court’s decision did not take our situation into consideration.”
The judge offered Bilal a chance to reduce his sentence by memorizing parts of the Quran, but the 10 -year-old did not know how to read or write. Bilal was placed in an underground cell with adult prisoners, spending a month in the militia’s al-Tawba prison, a facility notorious for its abuse and torturing methods.
“Everything reeked so bad, and all the faces were so scary, ” Bilal told, describing his cell- and the anxiety he felt being segregated from his brother.
Older detainees like Ibrahim often serve sentences of hard, unpaid labor. Tunnels managed by Jaish al-Islam connect the besieged town to government-held neighborhoods, and are used for smuggling: a lucrative business. Ibrahim expended a month cementing and transporting dirt inside the passageways in exchange for one meal a day, at the end of which he would sleep in the prison.
“The work was very hard, and it caused sharp pain in my back, ” Ibrahim told Syria Deeply after his release in September. “I was the youngest, and I was so scared that the passageways might collapse. I did not want to die, because I did not want to leave my mother alone.”
Following his release, Ibrahim discovered work at a falafel store managed by the family’s neighbor, Abu Muhammad. “( He) felt bad for us, and offered my son Ibrahim a chore, ” Um Ibrahim told. “Ibrahim was very happy.” It was to be a short-lived period of happiness, however. In October, Ibrahim was killed when government airstrikes on the town hit the shop.
Bilal and Um Ibrahim continue to live in Douma, and the 10 -year-old conflicts with recurring nightmares from his time spent in prison. In order to support what remains of their own families, Um Ibrahim cleans the two houses of Douma’s wealthier residents, including employees of Jaish al-Islam, different groups that imprisoned her children for the crime of stealing so that they might be able to eat.
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