Five-year-old Sara dreams nearly every night that she is slowly surrounded by snipers who then open fire, shooting her again and again until she finally dies. Her older sister Farah, just 8 years old, can calmly tell the difference between a rocket and a tank shell, based solely on the sound it makes when fired close to her home.
The sisters — featured in a documentary called “Children of Aleppo” airing on "Frontline" Tuesday evening — live in a rebel-controlled part of the ancient Syrian city that is under near-constant siege from dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. More than 10,000 children have died in Syria’s bloody civil war, which is stretching into its third year, and another million have been driven from the country as refugees.
Assad is fighting both moderate rebels who want to set up a democratic society and al-Qaida linked terror groups who have co-opted the revolution from the original rebels. The first segment in the two-part "Frontline" documentary, called "Syria's Second Front," focuses on how the jihadis have taken over much of the north of the country, terrorizing civilians. The U.S. resumed delivering nonlethal aid to the rebels in December, but stopped short of providing weapons or body armor.
Photojournalist Marcel Mettelsiefen, who’s traveled to the front lines of the country more than 20 times since the conflict began in 2011, filmed Farah and Sara and their family for three days last September, as a way to spotlight the plight of children there.
The children live in a once middle-class suburb that now is bombed out and barren, filled with piles of shrapnel and abandoned homes. Their father, Abu Ali, commands a regiment of 300 rebel fighters who are working to topple the Assad regime. The family lives just two blocks away from the regime-controlled part of the city, and are thus at the front lines of the fight. The children’s mother, Hala, said she at first gave her children cough syrup so they would sleep through the constant shelling. Then she told them the bombs were fireworks. Finally, she just told them the truth.
Now, her four children — Sara, Farah, 13-year-old Helen, and 14-year-old Mohammed — are used to beating a hasty retreat inside their apartment when the shelling sounds get louder or their father tells them to. They even help their father make bombs.
“When they threw a missile on that house over there, I died a big death,” 5-year-old Sara tells Mettelsiefen. “I died and then lived again.”
The sound of a rocket launch interrupts her sister Farah describing what it was like to see the corpse of a fighter in the street by her house. “That was close by,” Farah says, fear in her eyes. “It didn’t explode. It didn’t explode. That was a rocket. No, a tank shell. But it didn’t explode.”
Their older brother Mohammed tells the filmmaker that he doesn’t have “any feelings left anymore.”
Mettelsiefen said in an interview with Yahoo News that he was touched by the children’s resilience.
“Children are children in every environment,” Mettelsiefen said. “They have a tremendous way to adapt and cope.”
But it was easy for him to see that these four children were being changed forever by the war raging around them.
“You could tell by the things they say, the dreams they have,” he said. “I think the real effect and outcome of this trauma will be seen in a couple of years.”
The children seem to have more hope than their parents that the conflict will end one day. In one poignant scene, the sisters sweep and clean a besieged and abandoned home, in case peace is ever restored and the occupants return.
It’s been difficult and extremely dangerous for journalists to travel to the country and report on the conflict. The Committee to Protect Journalists estimates that 30 journalists are currently missing in Syria, many believed to be kidnapped by al Qaida-linked rebel groups.
Mettelsiefen was only able to film the girls for three days in September, before it became too dangerous for him to stay. One of the subjects he was filming — the older brother of a young rebel activist — was kidnapped by terrorists just days after Mettelsiefen was with him.
The filmmaker described the family at the heart of the documentary as “tremendously liberal.” They named their three daughters Farah, Sara, and Helen to represent Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. The jihadis in the country, who have co-opted the largely secular and democratic uprising against Assad, have stolen the attention away from the moderates, he says. He wanted to correct that in a small way by telling this family’s story.
“This revolution is not a revolution any more; it’s a civil war,” Mettelsiefen said. “The ones who are suffering most are civilians.”