The conflicts in Gaza and Syria are having a devastating impact on the lives of children. Children are dying in growing numbers and childhood itself is being destroyed.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, about 300 children have been killed in Gaza since July 8 when Israel launched its offensive against Hamas militants firing rockets into the Jewish state. Last week in Gaza, the United Nations noted with alarm that a child was dying every hour. Israel insists it doesn't intentionally target civilians, but Gaza is a sliver of a space, a densely populated and now dangerous place, where children have nowhere to hide.

Four youngsters, all cousins, were killed on July 16, as they played near Gaza's port when Israel shelled the area twice, in quick succession. According to the father of one of the deceased, "they were gathering pieces of metal for a little game they play about Arabs versus Israelis." In another family, three children were killed by Israel's warning strike known as a "knock on the roof." They were playing with pigeons on that roof, as children do.
The children who are still alive try not to internalise too much the violence they have experienced, seen and heard. Yet, if any child in Gaza is asked to do a sketch, the resulting picture is likely to be a house being bombed by a fighter plane. According to psychiatrists, children exposed to traumatic events like war, often have distorted views of incidents. For example, they might blame themselves or their neighbours and the consequences are very detrimental to their mental health. Every child of age six years and above living in Gaza has experienced at least three wars. Before Gaza took over the headlines, it was the children of Syria who pricked the world's conscience.

In a punishing war now in its fourth year, even the youngest of Syrians are in the snipers' sights. Even infants have been tortured. Millions of children live with hunger and fear, many suffering in areas under siege.

According to a nine year-old refugee in a camp in southern Turkey, a world steeped in the Free Syrian Army, "I'm only a child in age and appearance, but in terms of morals and humanity, I'm not. In the past, a 12-year-old was considered young, but not now. Now, at 12 years, you must go for jihad." He has a teenage brother who's already joined the fight across the border.

Instead of learning to read and write, children are learning about all types of weapons. Most know the names of bullets, tracers and rubber bullets; many spend days on empty stomach.
Such is the new and troubling "normal" for children living in war zones.
In wars of our time, the games children play can be the game changers of their future.


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