UN says children caught in Syria’s civil war suffer ‘unspeakable’ abuse

A UN report has found that in addition to the thousands of children who have been injured, killed or displaced as part of the war, the Syrian government has also tortured kids they suspect of being connected to the opposition, while others have been executed by armed opposition groups. Judy Woodruff learns more from Leila Zerrougui, a UN special representative for children and armed conflict.

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    This week, the United Nations released a report on children and the Syria conflict. It found that the Syrian government is responsible for thousands of deaths, and charged that it put children as young as 11 in prisons where they suffered — quote — "beatings with metal cables, sexual violence and mock executions."

    It also accuses armed opposition groups of summary executions of children.

    Joining me now is one of the authors of the report. She is Leila Zerrougui, the U.N. special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict.

    And we thank you for speaking with us.

    Ms. Zerrougui, you describe in this report unspeakable violence against these children. What were some of the main findings?

    LEILA ZERROUGUI, U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict: We were documenting — gathering information and documenting abuses committed against children since the beginning of this war.

    And we — as you know today, we are talking about 10,000 at least of children who have been killed. Thousands have been injured. More than a million is either displaced or fled in neighboring countries. And 70 percent of the children are not anymore going to school, and it's the third year. Their schools have been looted, have been destroyed, used militarily.

    They don't have access to the basic health care. They don't have access to even food. They saw their family killed. They are forced to take part in this conflict and to be recruited and used in military and other support function. And, from the other side, they are arrested, detained because of their effective or perceived association with armed groups.

    So this is what we are saying, and this is what it is happening. This is what I saw myself in my two visits in Syria. And this is just not only unspeakable. It is unacceptable.


    And did you find — what did you find were the differences between what the government, the Syrian government has done in the way it's treated children, and the opposition groups?


    I think, at the beginning, as we mentioned in the report, the government was confronted to self-defense militia, and more civilian opposition, but with the access from the opposition to heavy weaponry.

    So it's become more and more a war between two parties and taking — this happening in the middle of cities, in area where — populated area. And the consequences for children is just unbearable, because the number of killed and injured is very high in this brutal war.

    But if we can — what we are reporting is that government is, of course, using aerial bombardments, a lot in populated area. A lot of children have been killed and maimed, and also, as we mentioned, the detention of children and the ill treatment in detention.

    But we also receive information on opposition groups, because with all these factions now operating in different areas, also, they are detaining the children, and they are — but most important when you talk about the opposition is the recruitment and use of children in this conflict.


    How confident are you in your findings? We're already hearing of denials, especially from the Syrian government, the Syrian regime. How much evidence were you able to get to back this up?


    As I said, we were gathering information from the beginning. We were documenting. I visit twice the country, Syria, and neighboring country. We are in contact with both sides.

    I met with people that are — have been affected by this war that are directly victim, children, but were, for example, detained and released, and they report on what happened to them. They report on what — others still in detention. I spoke with parents that their children have been either killed or have been detained or disappeared.

    I also spoke with children that have been associated with armed groups, fighting alongside with them. I met with those who left — who lost arms or legs. So, if we gather ourselves information and we also go through triangulation of information coming through our partners on the ground, we consider — we consider that what we were — you see in our report, that some information are confirmed and verified, or they are reported, and we are asking the government side and opposition to allow us to get access.

    If they contest something, we would like to get the access and to verify with them. But there's no doubt that violation is ongoing.


    Just finally, let me ask you, is the intention — do you really — is it your hope that the two sides would change their — the kind of violence that they have been guilty of, or is this more a matter of documenting this for some sort of future accountability that these two sides will be held against?


    I think that the documentation is important, because those who are committing atrocities on both sides need to be held accountable one day. So it's important.

    The documentation is also necessary because people — because it's the only way that you can engage with parties and bring the evidence to act — to let them act on that. It is also important because we have to push — it is my duty to continue to do what I am doing. I will not stop, and I will not give up, because it's my responsibility.

    And it's only — it's also the only way to see to put the pressure, not only on those who are fighting, but those who can make a difference because they are supporting them. We have to continue to reach to all parties. It's the only way to stop this brutal war that is affecting children.


    Well, it is a disturbing report. And we appreciate your talking with us, Leila Zerrougui, who has, along with others, authored a report on violence against children in the Syrian war.

    We thank you.


    Thank you.


    In next week's "Frontline" on PBS, "Syria's Second War," gets inside the battle lines in the country's northern fight, where al-Qaida-linked factions have joined the fight. That's Tuesday on your PBS station.

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