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The Toys They Carried: Syrian Children Under Siege

The airstrikes have been unrelenting in a Damascus suburb, where frames of bombed buildings loom over ghostly streets.

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HWAIDA SAAD, New York Times

The airstrikes have been unrelenting in a Damascus suburb, where frames of bombed buildings loom over ghostly streets.

Hundreds of lives have been lost in less than two weeks of a government siege of the suburb, eastern Ghouta. Dozens of children are among the dead. Many have been crushed by the collapsing walls of homes leveled by missiles.

The siege has been deemed “one of the most pitiless onslaughts in this long-running and brutal civil war” by the top U.N. human rights official, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.

Families have headed into basements and dank tunnels, with small cookstoves, flour and warm clothes. Children, born into war, bring what they love: Their toys.

Maya, 5, brought her dolls and favorite stuffed cat, Tiki, fearing the missiles that threatened her life could take theirs. Others have brought blocks, boardgames like Monopoly and tiny cars, playing while the adults scrounge firewood for the stoves and try to feed babies suffering malnutrition.

These are the stories of children who have cheated death, told partly through what they carried into shelters — and what they left behind — as told by their parents, via phone and internet messaging apps.

— Maya, 5

She clutched her dolls close, her deep brown eyes fixed on their faces. Her mother, Nivin Hotary, snapped a photo.

“Of course, every doll has her own name, and she loves them all,” Hotary, 38, said. “When I asked her to keep them in the house, she refused and asked me to bring them with us to the basement.”

Last week when Hotary grabbed her children and supplies, Maya, mimicking her mom, collected her toys.

“It was my responsibility to protect my children from the bombing,” Hotary wrote. “She’s determined to protect her children, too.”

“But I can’t tell her that her toys will stay safe.”

Maya was born two years into the war, her days defined by the conflict unfolding around her. Hotary said Maya and her 11-year-old brother, Qusay, understand what is happening but not why.

For now, they focus on their own universe: a cramped basement with neighbors. Sitting on a mat that insulates against the cold of the concrete floor, Maya prepared “dinner” with her plastic kitchen set.

“Maybe she’s trying to make it up from the deprivation that she’s living in by giving to others,” Hotary writes. “I’m so happy she found a way to defy the weakness and fear and adapt to the situation.”

— Ahmad, 2

In a basement across town, Ahmad cried and pleaded with his mother to bring him his toy cars from home.

For days, his mother, Maram, 24, could not retrieve them without risking death. Maram, who asked that her last name not be published because of safety concerns, said she had not thought to bring the cars at first: With 150 people sharing the windowless space, she assumed there would be no time or space for toys. But her children were growing restless.

Ahmad and his 8-month-old brother, Omar, were stuck inside for days on end as warplanes passed.

Moreover, Omar’s teething pain made him fussy. His mother noticed his first tooth had broken through his gums while they were sheltering.

After more than a week underground, the airstrikes paused and Maram made it a priority to retrieve the toys.

A blast had shattered her home windows and damaged the doors. But she found the toy cars, clean clothes for both boys and a painkiller for Omar as his teeth grew in.

Still, teething and toys are the least of her concerns. How will she feed her boys? How can she keep them from illness in a packed shelter with no bathroom? The family ventures aboveground on occasion to use the toilet in a nearby shop. But food scarcity is the biggest concern. Ahmad is underweight. Maram nurses Omar but breast milk is not enough. She feeds him bottles — a mix of flour, water and sugar.

“I don’t know what I can give him; we don’t have vitamins or good food,” Maram said.

All shops are closed. Even before the most recent siege, they barely had anything on their shelves.

“The children are crying; they just want a biscuit,” Maram said.

— Yasmina, 6 months

Eastern Ghouta’s youngest residents have not escaped the horrors of war, even as their parents have sought to instill a sense of normalcy. Marwan Habaq and his infant daughter, Yasmina, would spend hours at home watching their fish swimming in circles in a tank at home.

Habaq bought the fish before the war. As supplies dwindled, fish food was harder to find. But nine fish survived.

“Me and Yasmina loved the fish, but my wife used to get jealous, because we were paying more attention to the fish than her,” he said.

Yasmina also loved her stuffed toy, a bright red bumblebee bought by her father.

“Usually babies react to colorful stuff, and Yasmina did the same,” he said.

When the airstrikes intensified, Habaq and his wife grabbed their daughter and fled into the basement, leaving the aquarium and stuffed bumblebee upstairs.

On Feb. 23, their home was bombed. His voice broke as he described the wreckage.

“Every corner of the house was dear to me, but Yasmina’s stuff was the most precious,” he said. He found the bumblebee, half scorched.

As for the aquarium: “I only found one burned fish under the rubble, the rest were ashes.”

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