ALEPPO, Syria—At age 15, Tarik* decided to leave school and fight—literally—for his country. Three of his brothers were already serving in the Syrian Army, and his parents approved of his decision to join them.
Tarik and his family have faced the brunt of the now 5-year-old war because they live in Aleppo, one of the most war-ravaged cities in Syria. Residents there haven’t had steady access to electricity or running water for years and have been exposed to extreme levels of violence.
"I used to be a very loving person, but the war changed my feelings,” he said. “I thought that only with fighting could I get back what I lost.”
After enlisting in the Syrian Army, Tarik used to enter homes and search for photos of the people who used to live there. He was curious about who these people were and would imagine where they might be today. He remembers once coming across a wedding album covered in dust.
“I tried to wipe the dust off so I can look more at the details of each photo,” he said. “I found photos of a married couple with a baby girl. After seeing the date of the photo, I realized that if the baby girl is still alive, she would be the same age as my sister.”
Tarik saw a lot of destroyed homes as a soldier in Aleppo. He began to think about the homes and about the people who used to live there—people he thought he was fighting to protect.
“I thought about all the bullets I had shot, believing that I’m fighting for each of them while I was actually part of what was causing harm to a place they used to call home,” he said.
While still in the army, Tarik began visiting a child-friendly space in Aleppo run by SOS Children’s Villages. There was a psychosocial counselor there who would speak to Tarik when he visited. The counselor provides support to children such as Tarik who have been directly affected by the war. There are also recreational activities such as painting, music, reading and writing for the children, many of whom come from poor families who have been displaced by the war. More than 2,200 children have visited the space since it opened in May 2015.
Children participate in art activities at the SOS Children’s Villages child-friendly space in Aleppo, Syria, in December 2015. Photo credit: Abeer Pamuk.
With help from the counselor, Tarik quit the army after serving for 18 months. He regrets ever having become a soldier and wishes that someone had convinced him not to do it.
Now 17, Tarik is studying for his high school exit exams. He said that he wants to become an architect.
“My weapon now is my pen,” he said. “I wish to study architecture in university so that I am able to rebuild what we have all been destroying for years.”
The Syrian Civil War officially entered its 5th year on March 15. The war has claimed the lives of more than 250,000 people and has forced another 11 million from their homes. Inside the country, 2.8 million children are not going to school because their schools have been destroyed or repurposed for other uses. About 6 million children are in need of humanitarian aid.
*The child’s name was changed to protect his privacy.
Special thanks to Abeer Pamuk for contributing to this story from Aleppo.