Mouhammad grew up in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and was just 12 years old when the war broke out. The youngest in a family of boys, he watched as one by one his brothers became soldiers. Every aspect of their family life was affected by the conflict. “The alley-way next to our house where I once used to play with my friends suddenly became a frontline,” remembers Mouhammed. “It was very dangerous and only soldiers were allowed to go out.”
A country destroyed by war
Frustrated by the restrictions put on him by the war and desperate to do more than just watch, Mouhammad decided to become a soldier. He was 15 years old. “The war had a massive impact on me and something inside me snapped,” he says. “I thought that only through fighting would I be able to get back what had been lost.”
“My parents used to show me photos of what things were like before – photos with me as a baby in places that have now been destroyed by war,” he explains.
Hardened by the war and the things he had seen, he thought he was old enough to become a soldier. But now he recognises that he was still very much a child. “I asked to serve in the area where I grew up, close to my family house because I wanted to be close to my family,” he says. “I couldn’t bear to be separated from them.”
He may still have been a child, but being a soldier meant he had to grow up quickly. “Being a soldier robbed me of my childhood. I got used to seeing blood and people dying – one man died right next to me,” he says. “I wish I had been able to tell his mother how much he missed her and that he always spoke of her."
Robbed of a childhood
Despite being surrounded by death and horror, Mouhammad never lost sight of the desperate human tragedy of the conflict. He would sneak into destroyed houses in the dead of night and spend hours scouring through the rubble trying to piece together the lives of the people who had once lived there.
“I used to search for things like pictures,” he remembers. “I once came across a wedding album which also had lots of pictures of baby girl in it. Through the date on the photos I saw that if that little girl was still alive, she’d be the same age as my little sister. In that moment I thought to myself why, if we’re trying to bring life back to Syria, why are we actually destroying everything? How can I bring life back if I’m part of the group bringing destruction?”
Hopeful that the owners of these treasured items would one-day come back from them, he kept them safe under a pile of rocks. In the days following his discovery of the wedding album Mouhammad couldn’t shake the thought that the fighting was actually causing more harm than good.
“I saw each house as representing Syria, and while me and my friends, and the other people on the other side of the front-line were all fighting for reasons we thought were right, we were all actually participating in the destruction of the house,” he says with passion.
Helping children be children again
Increasingly disillusioned, Mouhammad realised that his decision to become a soldier had been a bad one.
One day he stumbled across the Child Friendly Space in Aleppo run by SOS Children. There, the specially trained staff made it their mission to help this sensitive young man. They organised a series of psychological support sessions for Mouhammad and, several months later, he finally put down his gun.
Our Child Friendly Space in Aleppo is dedicated to helping children and young people in Aleppo and the surrounding area. It is a safe place where they can come to relax and escape the horrors of their decimated city. Staff run art therapy sessions, organise plays and music recitals and give reading and writing support. The Space also offers psycho-social support to help often deeply traumatised children and young people overcome the horrors they have experienced. Since opening in May 2015, the Space has become a safe-haven for thousands of children.
“My weapon is my pen now”
“What I love most about SOS Children is that they helped me find the child I was supposed to be. I just needed someone to direct me and SOS Children was not only able to do that, but they were also able to get me back doing what all the children my age should be doing.”
Today, he dreams of becoming an architect. “My weapon is my pen now and I want to study architecture at university because that is what I must be to really re-build everything we have been destroying for years now,” he says.
The war for the strategic city of Aleppo has recently intensified. In February 2016 an intense bombing campaign obliterated many buildings, including family homes, in the centre of the city.
Many thousands of people, including young children, fled for their lives. Some of them have made it safely to Turkey where they are beginning new lives as refugees. Mouhammad remains in Aleppo where he is now preparing to take his baccalaureate exam. He hopes to start university this summer.