BIBNINE, Lebanon >> Alaa plays the horrifying video she kept on her phone that shows her moments after she was riddled with bullets, her jaw shredded, hand punctured, and chest bleeding. “Did you not see the video?” the Syrian teenager asks visitors, in defiance of its cruelty, to show how far she has come.
It has been a long road. And a missed childhood.
From Alan Kurdi lying dead face down on a Turkish shore, to a dust-covered Omran Daqneesh awaiting help in an Aleppo ambulance, images of Syrian children suffering some of the conflict’s worst horrors have become iconic. Countless others still relentlessly flood the media: children pulled from under bombed buildings, or convulsing after inhaling chemical gas or drowning after boats of fleeing families capsize in choppy seas.
Alaa is one of the many victims of Syria’s six-year civil war, which the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF says is getting worse for children.
UNICEF says the war has forced more than 2.3 million children, or nearly 10 percent of the total pre-war population of Syria, to seek refuge in neighboring countries. Save the Children says as of 2016, at least 3 million children are estimated to be living in areas with high exposure to explosive weapons.
UNICEF Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa Geert Cappelaere said every six hours a child was killed or seriously injured in Syria in 2016, calling it the worst period for children since the war began in 2011.
“Children have been facing true atrocities. The scars of six years of war upon children are multiple and are very very deep scars,” Cappelaera told The Associated Press.
Four years and 12 surgeries later, Alaa is still rebuilding her face and jaw. There is also the depression. For a long time she avoided looking in the mirror or walking past glass windows. She even avoided looking people in the eye, fearing she would catch the reflection of her maimed face.
Just days before the second anniversary of Syria’s uprising in March 2013, Alaa, at the time 15, was heading by car with her younger sister and toddler brother to their grandmother’s house in the central Homs province. She had a doctor’s appointment, and was preparing for end-of-year exams. Before their mother even stepped into the car, an hours-long gunfight broke out between Syria’s opposition and government forces. They were caught in the middle.
“I saw the person who fired at us with my own eyes. But I didn’t feel it or get it until something went straight for my mouth,” Alaa recalled.
Alaa’s full name was withheld for security concerns over relatives back home.
Her sister Hamida, now 17, was also badly wounded. Their 2-year-old brother was saved because Alaa took three bullets to the hand shielding his head and shoving him out of the car, apparently to safety. For hours, the mother tried, unsuccessfully, to stop the battle.
“No matter how hard I screamed, no one heard me because the shooting was so heavy,” said Tahani, their mother.
The girls were carried from the scene, at first presumed dead.
Alaa and her family traveled to Lebanon a month after the incident.
“For a month, I refrained from looking at myself in the mirror. Impossible. Impossible,” Alaa said, passionately, speaking at her home in the northern town where she settled with her mother, three siblings and step-father.
At first, doctors struggled to heal her wounds, shattering what little spirit she had remaining. One doctor said she would die any day, she recalled.
With her mouth and tongue stitched up, Alaa couldn’t speak for a month. She could only eat baby food. When briefly separated from her mother, she suffered anxiety fits. Seeing her killer in every approaching stranger, she was terrified of men.
To add to the family’s pain, Hamida, Alaa’s younger sister, also suffered complications from her multiple wounds. Bullets had riddled her body, puncturing her back and stomach, and costing her a kidney, half her liver and 12 centimeters of her intestine.
Hamida said she lost years of her childhood in hospitals, undergoing treatment and following strict diets. Now she aspires to be a child care worker.
“I want to return to those years and always be a child,” said Hamida.
In late 2014, a doctor and a local organization finally raised enough money for Alaa’s reconstructive surgery. After a 17-hour operation, she was once again able to look at herself in the mirror.
Last year, she stepped out of isolation, returning to school to study architecture.
But the blows kept coming. Alaa’s sweetheart back home was killed, also in the fighting.
Alaa’s repeated viewing of the incident reflects a deeper struggle with the scars of war. She keeps a small notebook in which she wrote to her mother when her tongue was stitched up. “Here I tell her, mom, I can’t sleep from the saliva. … I am suffocating,” she read from the book, choking on her words.
Her mother refuses to revisit the notebook.
Alaa’s eyes light up when she remembers the nurse who introduced her to the doctor that raised the money for her major surgery.
Tight resources for over 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon have complicated even the simplest form of treatment.
“There are also lots of children who don’t have documents and their families are too scared to get them to Beirut to have medical assessments. That is a huge problem as well,” said Sam Gough of INARA, the organization that sponsored Alaa’s dental implants and other treatments.
Even curable diseases are a challenge to prevent among the refugee community, Gough said.
Alaa is still completing treatment to fix her dental implants. Shrapnel remains lodged in her chest. She watches a weekly plastic surgery TV program and dreams of the day the scar line framing her lips disappears.
“I want to finish my treatment. I am tired. It has been years,” she said. “The pain in my heart and what I lived through will not go away.
“In Syria, a girl grows up fast,” she said.