“This is a war against normal life.” So said CNN correspondent Clarissa Ward, describing the situation at this moment in Syria, as well as in other parts of the Middle East. It was one of those remarks that should wake you up to the fact that the regions the United States has, since September 2001, played such a role in destabilizing are indeed in crisis, and that this process isn’t just taking place at the level of failing states and bombed-out cities, but in the most personal way imaginable. It’s devastating for countless individuals—mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, brothers, sisters, friends, lovers—and above all for children.
Ward’s words caught a reality that grows harsher by the week, and not just in Syria, but in parts of Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya, among other places in the Greater Middle East and Africa. Death and destruction stalk whole populations in Syria and other crumbling countries and failed or failing states across the region. In one of those statistics that should stagger the imagination, devastated Syria alone accounts for more than 5 million of the estimated 21 million refugees worldwide. And sadly, these numbers do not reflect an even harsher reality: You become a “refugee” only by crossing a border. According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), in 2015 there were another 44 million people uprooted from their homes who were, in essence, exiles in their own lands. Add those numbers together and you have one out of every 113 people on the planet—and those figures, the worst since World War II, may only be growing.
Rawya Rageh, a senior crisis adviser at Amnesty International, added troubling details to Ward’s storyline, among them that deteriorating conditions in war-torn Syria have made it nearly “impossible to find bread, baby formula, or diapers.… leaving survivors at a loss for words” (and just about everything else). Meanwhile, across a vast region, families who survive as families continue to face the daily threat of death, hunger, and loss. They often are forced to live in makeshift refugee camps in what amounts to a perpetual state of grief and fear, while the threat of rape, death by drone or suicide bomber, or by other forms of warfare and terror is for many just a normal part of existence, and parental despair is the definition of everyday life.
When normal life disintegrates in this way, the most devastating impact falls on the children. The death toll among children in Syria alone reached at least 700 in 2016. For those who survive there and elsewhere, the prospect of homelessness and statelessness looms large. Approximately half of the refugee population consists of young people under the age of 18. For them and for the internally displaced, food is often scarce, especially in a country like Yemen, in the midst of a Saudi-led, American-backed war in which civilians are commonly the targets of airstrikes, cholera is spreading, and a widespread famine is reportedly imminent. In a Yemeni scenario in which 17 million people now are facing “severe food insecurity,” nearly two million children are already acutely malnourished. That number, like so many others emerging from the disaster that is the 21st-century Middle East, is overwhelming, but we shouldn’t let it numb us to the simple fact that each and every one of those two million young people is a child like any other child, except that he or she is being deprived of the chance to grow up undamaged.