AAmid the rubble of bombed-out houses in Binnish, a town in northwestern Syria, a brightly painted mural stands out. The image shows an intact house, with love hearts flowing through the windows. Above, however, the dark silhouettes of the birds are accompanied by helicopters, warplanes and missiles, and the red and yellow flowers in the garden resemble flames.
The mural is the work of 13-year-old Hussein Sabbagh, who was eight years old when his family fled Bashar al-Assad’s attacks on Aleppo in 2016. Like millions of other Syrians, the Sabbagh have found themselves in the northwestern Syria, the last pocket of the country that remains out of the regime’s control.
The family tried to build a new life despite the fact that the war was still raging around them: for Hussein, there was respite in football, and helping local artist Aziz al-Asmar with his famous paintings political murals. But the teenager’s dreams of becoming a painter came to an end last month when regime forces targeted a swimming pool in Fua town with artillery fire. Hussein, along with his 17-year-old brother, 23-year-old uncle and three other civilians, were killed.
“Hussein was loved by all. He helped me with many murals that I painted… He was talented and had such a great imagination, ”said Asmar. “There was one drawing in particular that he really liked to paint, a house with hearts of love… He meant that these bombs kill love and destroy houses.
Hussein is one of 27 children who have been killed in government attacks in northwestern Syria in the past two months alone, as Bashar al-Assad’s war of attrition wreaks havoc among them. the youngest and most vulnerable inhabitants of the region. Seven school buildings were also affected, adding to the regime’s dismal record in targeting civilian infrastructure.
“We have started to notice a trend in recent years, where the shelling gets worse on holidays like Eid,” said Laila Hasso, director of communications and advocacy for the Hurras Network, a charity that works to protect children in Syria.
“Thirteen children were killed in just three days. Now every time Eid comes we are afraid of losing more children. Instead of giving them new clothes to dress up and celebrate, parents dress their children to be buried.
Northwestern Syria is primarily ruled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, an Islamist group that took control of other opposition factions in 2019. While HTS has made efforts to distance itself from Its origins from al-Qaida, the group tolerates little dissent and applies religious edicts to those who live in its territory.
The area is supposed to be protected by a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia in March 2020, but the deal is systematically ignored and people in the region live in fear of the next wave of airstrikes.
About three-quarters of the estimated 3.5 million people have fled to the northwest to escape fighting in other parts of the country. Living conditions are dire and have worsened since the collapse of the Syrian currency last year, which caused food prices to skyrocket.
A constant stream of aid cuts and the arrival of Covid-19 have also added to the hardships in the daily lives of those trapped between the regime and HTS.
The violence escalated in the two weeks following the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday. Around the same time, Assad was sworn in to a fourth seven-year term as president after winning 95% of the vote in the fraudulent May elections, promising to make “the liberation of parts of the homeland that have yet to be ”one of its top priorities.
“The regime calls the inhabitants of northwestern Syria terrorists. But acts of terrorism are what the regime does, attacking civilians and schools, ”Hasso said.
“Sometimes parents ask us to close school buildings because they are so afraid that their children will die there. In other parts of the world, schools are considered safe places… The regime wants to send the message that there is no future in this area for you or your children.
Asmar, the artist, went to lay flowers at Hussein’s grave in Binnish last week. Despite the pain of losing his young assistant, painting remains a way to keep hope and remind the world that Syrians still dream of peace and justice, he said.
“Ever since I came back from Beirut to Syria years ago, I have been trying to make children smile. I try to make them forget, if only for a moment, the terror and the war they went through, ”he said.
“I let them participate with me so that they can express their feelings through art. I want to send them a message that there is still hope.