Skip to main content

Alaa, 19, seen on April 27, 2017, at her home in Bebnine town, north Lebanon, had to undergo 17-hour reconstructive surgery after being shot in 2013 in her jaw during an hours-long gunfight in Syria.

Hussein Malla/AP

Alaa plays the horrifying video she kept on her phone that shows the moments after she was riddled with bullets: her jaw shredded, hand punctured and chest bleeding. "Did you not see the video?" the Syrian teenager asks visitors, in defiance of its cruelty, to show how far she has come.

It has been a long road. And a missed childhood.

From Alan Kurdi lying dead face down on a Turkish shore, to a dust-covered Omran Daqneesh awaiting help in an Aleppo ambulance, images of Syrian children suffering some of the conflict's worst horrors have become iconic. Countless others still relentlessly flood the media: children pulled from under bombed buildings, or convulsing after inhaling chemical gas or drowning after boats of fleeing families capsize in choppy seas.

Story continues below advertisement

Alaa is one of the many victims of Syria's six-year civil war, which the UN children's agency UNICEF says is getting worse for children.

UNICEF says the war has forced more than 2.3 million children, or nearly 10 per cent of the total prewar population of Syria, to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. Save the Children says as of 2016, at least three million children are estimated to be living in areas with high exposure to explosive weapons.

UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa Geert Cappelaere said every six hours a child was killed or seriously injured in Syria in 2016, calling it the worst period for children since the war began in 2011.

"Children have been facing true atrocities. The scars of six years of war upon children are multiple and are very very deep scars," Mr. Cappelaer told the Associated Press.

Four years and 12 surgeries later, Alaa is still rebuilding her face and jaw. There is also the depression. For a long time, she avoided looking in the mirror or walking past glass windows. She even avoided looking people in the eye, fearing she would catch the reflection of her maimed face.

Just days before the second anniversary of Syria's uprising in March, 2013, Alaa, at the time 15, was heading by car with her younger sister and toddler brother to their grandmother's house in the central Homs province. She had a doctor's appointment and was preparing for end-of-year exams. Before their mother even stepped into the car, an hours-long gunfight broke out between Syria's opposition and government forces. They were caught in the middle.

"I saw the person who fired at us with my own eyes. But I didn't feel it or get it until something went straight for my mouth," Alaa recalled.

Story continues below advertisement

Alaa's full name was withheld for security concerns over relatives back home.

Her sister Hamida, now 17, was also badly wounded. Their two-year-old brother was saved because Alaa took three bullets to the hand shielding his head and shoving him out of the car, apparently to safety. For hours, the mother tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the battle.

"No matter how hard I screamed, no one heard me because the shooting was so heavy," their mother, Tahani, said. The girls were carried from the scene, at first presumed dead.

Alaa and her family travelled to Lebanon a month after the incident.

"For a month, I refrained from looking at myself in the mirror. Impossible. Impossible," Alaa said, passionately, speaking at her home in the northern town where she settled with her mother, three siblings and stepfather.

At first, doctors struggled to heal her wounds, shattering what little spirit she had remaining. One doctor said she would die any day, she recalled.

Story continues below advertisement

With her mouth and tongue stitched up, Alaa couldn't speak for a month. She could only eat baby food. When briefly separated from her mother, she suffered anxiety fits. Seeing her killer in every approaching stranger, she was terrified of men.

To add to the family's pain, Hamida, Alaa's younger sister, also suffered complications from her multiple wounds. Bullets had riddled her body, puncturing her back and stomach and costing her a kidney, half her liver and 12 centimetres of her intestine.

Hamida said she lost years of her childhood in hospitals, undergoing treatment and following strict diets. Now, she aspires to be a child-care worker.

"I want to return to those years and always be a child," Hamida said.

In late 2014, a doctor and a local organization finally raised enough money for Alaa's reconstructive surgery. After a 17-hour operation, she was once again able to look at herself in the mirror.

Last year, she stepped out of isolation, returning to school to study architecture.

Story continues below advertisement

But the blows kept coming. Alaa's sweetheart back home was killed, also in the fighting.

Alaa's repeated viewing of the incident reflects a deeper struggle with the scars of war. She keeps a small notebook in which she wrote to her mother when her tongue was stitched up. "Here I tell her, mom, I can't sleep from the saliva. … I am suffocating," she read from the book, choking on her words.

Her mother refuses to revisit the notebook.

Alaa's eyes light up when she remembers the nurse who introduced her to the doctor that raised the money for her major surgery.

Tight resources for more than 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon have complicated even the simplest form of treatment.

"There are also lots of children who don't have documents and their families are too scared to get them to Beirut to have medical assessments. That is a huge problem as well," said Sam Gough of INARA, the organization that sponsored Alaa's dental implants and other treatments.

Even curable diseases are a challenge to prevent among the refugee community, Gough said.

Alaa is still completing treatment to fix her dental implants. Shrapnel remains lodged in her chest. She watches a weekly plastic surgery TV program and dreams of the day the scar line framing her lips disappears.

"I want to finish my treatment. I am tired. It has been years," she said. "The pain in my heart and what I lived through will not go away.

"In Syria, a girl grows up fast," she said.

Report an error
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter