Dateline, Childhood on Hold

Transcript

It's hard to imagine an age of innocence in a time of war. After 16 months of negotiations with the Assad Government, I've come to film life in the conflict here in Syria. Knowing I'll see devastation, fighting and heartbreak, I wonder if anything can prepare you for the reality of war. This is the funeral procession of Suheil Al Nabki. The 28-year-old was killed by a mortar here in Damascus. The bloodstained flag that draped his coffin is now the prized possession of his son Marwan. Now it's up to his grandmother, Mareen Ab Alnasser, to raise the young boy. She says she'll wear her son's image close to her forever.

MAREEN AB ALNASSER, GRANDMOTHER (Translation): I never take it off, even in bed although I can’t sleep with anything around my neck. No, I never take it off. Suheil is in my heart and I don’t feel he is gone. We would sit together to drink coffee on the balcony. Everything, everything reminds me of Suheil.

And little Marwan has seen things that no child should ever witness.

MARWAN (Translation): I ran there, I saw Dad.

MAREEN AB ALNASSER (Translation): What did you see?

MARWAN (Translation): I saw him dead, down there.

If there's any solace at all for this grieving family, they at least still have their own home. As diplomats try to thrash out a ceasefire in Geneva, the number of displaced Syrians is staggering. It's eight million, and growing by the day. This Government shelter on the city's windswept outskirts is feeding 500 people. At times, it's housed 4,000. Um Mohamad is 37 and has 11 kids. Five are with her but six are still in an ISIS-controlled area. It's hard to imagine the family's trauma.

REPORTER: What future does she see for them?

UM MOHAMAD (Translation): We don’t think of future at all. We don’t know what the future holds for us, not even from one moment to the next.

And in suburbs like Jobar, the future has quite literally been blown apart, just 8km from central Damascus. I'm with Government forces and the enemy here isn't ISIS but another militant group, Jaish al-Islam, or The Army of Islam.

SOLDIER (Translation): Not very long ago, armed men came from that point, just in front of us. We defeated them and they suffered heavy losses.

The militants here are frighteningly close.

SOLDIER (Translation): And the fighting is sometimes only metres away.

It makes filming here virtually impossible. So many factions are fighting the Government and each other now in Syria, and all sides stand accused of brutality. It's been called a 'post apocalyptic nightmare'. At times, the militants have held this area till they were beaten back, but not very far. I'm hoping they don't make another charge any time soon. This is literally the front line of the Syrian civil war and we're told that the rebel groups could be between 20 and 50m away. But most disturbingly, they could also be anywhere underground. There's a nest of tunnels and they don't know precisely their location at any given time.

SOLDIER (Translation): There’s a fighter down there, he went in there. My battle with them is more underground…

My frontline guide is Colonel Ahmed Zarqa. The first thing that strikes me is how battle-weary he looks.

COLONEL AHMED ZARQA (Translation): Here you are standing on a spot where there is a fighter underground.

He has spent just two days at his own home in the past 14 months. He says his men are Sunni, Shia and Christian, fighting together, non-sectarian, which he says reflects the country's past and he hopes, its future. Like any soldiers, it's thoughts of home and family which unite these battle-hardened fighters.

COLONEL AHMED ZARQA (Translation): There’s a promise from the soldiers that we will not go back to our families until the smiles return to all the children in Syria.

And a few kilometres away, there are smiles.

CHILDREN (Translation): Is Ahmed in? Hammouda is in. Ahmed is in.

It makes me realise the resilience children have. Even growing up in a war zone, they'll make a playground. People are actually living in the rubble. This mother of six was driven out in a rebel assault, but with nowhere else to live the family returned to what's left of their old home.

WOMAN (Translation): There is no life here, no life whatsoever. No life. Rubbish, waste, filth, rodents, mice, rats and insects. It’s frightening, frightening.

And from this, to this. For those who can afford it and just 15 minutes from the fighting, beer, wine and spirits flow in busy bars and clubs. It could be Ibiza, even Melbourne, but scenes like this will disappear if the Islamist militias take control of the country. Shops and cafes are busy too. At times you can hear the mortars in the distance. But nothing disturbs a hard-fought game of backgammon. It is clear many people here have learnt to live with the surreal.

PAPPA JOSEPH: This is nice, this is Damascus tablecloth. You can use it double-face, one for Sunday, one for Monday.

For 40 years, Pappa Joseph has sold fine cloth and antiques, but he says five years of war have all but ruined him.

PAPPA JOSEPH: We have no business because we deal by foreign people, tourists, you see and from five years, no business.

REPORTER: Do you feel sad about what's happened?

PAPPA JOSEPH: Yes, of course, of course. Everybody, not me, not me. All the people. No business, no work, no nothing. No ... It's very bad, very bad, very bad situation for all Syrians.

Obaida Hamad is a journalist and also worked as my guide and translator.

OBAIDA HAAMAD, JOURNALIST (Translation): Hamza, which would you like? Which one, Hamza?

Unlike many, the father-of-two is determined to stay. No matter how bad it gets, this is home.

OBAIDA HAAMAD: Homeland is not a motel. If you don't like it, you can't change it. It's a homeland. It's something in your blood, in your genes.

But little Hamza's drawings show this war scars every child. At seven, he's already learning the curriculum of combat.

HAMZA: This is a soldier. This is a tank. This is a Katyusha. This is a car.

OBAIDA HAAMAD: Where is the gun?

HAMZA: This, this is a gun.

AHMED AND ALI (Translation): We like football… it’s entertaining. We feel happy when we beat other teams.

Brothers Ahmed and Ali are thinking big. They want to win the World Cup. But for now, their field of dreams has been reduced to this. It's easy for children to be robbed of learning when the adults are at war. Hundreds of schools are destroyed and two million children without education. So centres like this are vital, and the focus is on learning. The brothers fled the fighting in Aleppo a few months ago. And just as well - now the city's under even heavier attack and tens of thousands of people are heading for Turkey.

Five years of war means that one child-in-three develops a mental disorder. Trained volunteers assess the level and type of trauma the kids have experienced. And the war has already left its mark on the boys. Like most kids, they've got big dreams and a plan B.

BOY (Translation): If I don’t like being an engineer, I will be an army officer to crush ISIS. Kill them. I want to crush those who chop people’s heads off.

The word are pretty confronting, but in this mess, a sober reminder of innocence stolen. Many of these children have also witnessed unspeakable horror. It's the last place I expect to hear La Bamba. The power of music is a healing force.

TARIQ SALHIAH, TEACHER: The war, it will end one day, and I hope very soon. And in future, you'll make new Syria. It's unique, new country, much better. And they believe in this idea.

In the background, President Assad smiles down. But he and his forces stand accused of ending many young lives. In this country of chaos and war, with atrocities on all sides, there's a very different message here.

GIRL (Translation): We would like it to be peaceful. We would like things to go back to normal.

Video Journalist
LUKE WATERS

Producer
GEOFF PARISH

Fixer
OBAIDA HAMAD

Editor
DAVID POTTS

Translations
DALIA MATAR

23rd February 2016