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Aleppo Siege: Syrian Kids Find Childhood Deep Underground

The underground children's center in Aleppo is a lifeline for kids who are locked away at home because of fears of airstrikes ravaging Syrian cities.
Image: Heba
Heba, 5, plays in Aleppo's underground children center.Thaer Mohammmad

Heba gestures to show how a shower of glass rained on her during an airstrike.

"Once they hit us, and there was dust in our house," the 5-year-old said, describing the horror that has become ordinary in Syria's besieged city of Aleppo. "Glass broke over my head, but I was not hurt. All the windows were broken."

She soon shrugs off the memory of the attack, and rejoins other children in the playground deep underground at the Fus'ha Children's Center.

Heba, 5, plays in Aleppo's underground children center.Thaer Mohammmad

Set up by a group of teachers and parents last year, the center has been a lifeline for kids like Heba who are locked away at home because of fears of airstrikes that have ravaged Syrian cities since the 2011 uprising against President Bashar Assad. Children can attend six days a week for up to four hours a day.

Estimates for the number of children killed in the five-year Syria conflict vary, although a 2014 United Nations-commissioned report put the figure at more than 8,800.

Outside on Aleppo's streets, piles of gray debris stand at the foot of skeletal buildings pulverized by years of shelling. Small broken bodies of children are often quarried from the rubble.

Related: 'War Crime': 6 Hospitals Bombed in 7 Days, Group Says

But inside a nondescript building and down a steep flight of stairs, a riot of color and noise greets kids who play and sing in four brightly painted rooms.

"It's a friendly place for kids, a place where children can be safe. It is underground," Yaman Salame, 26, who works at the center, said before going on to officiate a sack race.

Zakaria Kurdi echoes a sentiment felt by many of the children — she feels safe here.

Children participate in a sack race at the underground play center in Aleppo, Syria.Thaer Mohammmad

"In the street or the house, we're really scared. Here, nothing will happen," the 8-year-old said.

Stray bombs and bullets aren't the only worry. A 2016 U.N. report noted the "massive" recruitment of children by ISIS, as well as the execution, imprisonment and torture of children by various sides in the conflict.

Psychological trauma

Many of the 250 children who visit the center no longer go to school, which along with hospitals have not been spared from Syrian government and Russian airstrikes. This is a tiny fraction of the some 100,000 kids who are believed to be living in the city being besieged by forces supporting Assad.

The children's preference for playing in small rooms underground with no natural light, rather than in the bright sunshine outside, underlines the trauma of growing up in a war zone.

"As a result of losing a father, a mother or siblings, a child would be in a state of psychiatric disorder, generally speaking. We have to keep an eye on the activities, and the psychological counselor will work with the child," said Majida, 28, one of the center's counselors.

Some of the children show signs of raised aggression and anxiety or reluctance to take part in activities, disorders the organization helps counter through play.

"It's really nice. First, the children started to work together, to like each other, to take care of each other. Even the simple things, like they share their food, they learn a lot of nice things here," said Marwa, the mother of one of the children.

The center hopes to expand in other neighborhoods, but its future is far from assured, with electricity and fuel shortages sometimes forcing it to close. Aleppo is under a weeks-long siege by government forces, and shortages have triggered international alarm.

Charity Save the Children is warning of a "humanitarian catastrophe."

Children gather at Aleppo's underground children center.Thaer Mohammmad

Despite the children's aversion to the outdoors, birds and flowers seem to be among the most popular themes as they draw pictures in a room set aside for arts and crafts.

In another room, a teacher teaches the importance of unity, inviting a boy to try to break a bunch of pencils after easily snapping a single pencil in two.

When the activities end, the door at the top of the stairs opens into blinding sunlight.

The children, some chatting, some running, some holding hands, emerge into the world outside.