ISTANBUL – It was a hot day in August 2016 when two brothers in the besieged southwest Syrian town of Douma lingered outside the downtown mosque during the noon prayer. Grabbing a pair of men’s shoes as the owner prayed inside, the two boys ran away with the contraband. They could sell them for up to 500 Syrian pounds (around $2.50), enough to buy a bag of bread.
The boys didn’t make it very far with their stolen goods. Before they had a chance to sell the shoes, 10-year-old Bilal and his 15-year-old brother Ibrahim were arrested by an opposition fighter who had spotted them outside the mosque.
“All we wanted, my brother and I, was to buy some food, and take it to our mother,” said Bilal. “We thought that whoever had left their shoes at the gate would not mind, because their houses were close to the mosque, and they would not walk far barefoot.”
Food is hard to come by in Douma. Located in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs, only 6 miles (10km) from the capital Damascus, the town of nearly 140,000 people has been under siege by government forces since 2013. Little international aid has made it inside in the past four years, and children are increasingly vulnerable in the unrelenting conditions of siege and war.
At least 15,099 children (under the age of 18) have been killed in Syria’s war, according to a September 2016 report by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group. A Save the Children report earlier this year found that 7.5 million children are negatively impacted by the ongoing war, 2 million of whom are not attending school. Among that number were Ibrahim and Bilal.
The boys’ father was killed by a government airstrike on Douma in May 2015 – an attack that left Bilal with only one foot. (Ibrahim would later share the same fate as his father in a regime airstrike more than a year later.) With their mother, Um Ibrahim, left to provide for her children by herself, the brothers tried to adjust to the tightening blockade and the family’s precarious situation. They did not attend school, but instead spent their days collecting plastic objects and selling them for loose change. When all the plastic had been scavenged from the streets, they resorted to begging for money, and – ultimately – a failed attempt to steal shoes.
The fighter who had caught the boys was a member of Jaish al-Islam, one of the largest fighting factions in Eastern Ghouta. The armed opposition group controls Douma’s internal affairs, including a judiciary system based on their interpretation of Islamic Sharia law. Bilal and Ibrahim were referred to a Sharia court, where the judge sentenced Bilal to one month in prison and Ibrahim to one month of unpaid labor.
“I did not know that my boys were roaming the streets begging for money until they were arrested,” said Um Ibrahim, who asked that her real name be omitted for security reasons. “I was shocked that the court’s decision did not take our situation into consideration.”
The judge offered Bilal a chance to reduce his sentence by memorizing parts of the Quran, but the 10-year-old did not know how to read or write. Bilal was placed in an underground cell with adult prisoners, spending a month in the militia’s al-Tawba prison, a facility notorious for its abuse and torture methods.
“Everything smelled so bad, and all the faces were so scary,” Bilal said, describing his cell – and the fear he felt being separated from his brother.
Older detainees like Ibrahim often serve sentences of hard, unpaid labor. Tunnels managed by Jaish al-Islam connect the besieged town to government-held neighborhoods, and are used for smuggling: a lucrative business. Ibrahim spent a month cementing and transporting dirt inside the tunnels in exchange for one meal a day, at the end of which he would sleep in the prison.
“The work was very hard, and it caused sharp pain in my back,” Ibrahim told Syria Deeply after his release in September. “I was the youngest, and I was so scared that the tunnels might collapse. I did not want to die, because I did not want to leave my mother alone.”
Following his release, Ibrahim found work at a falafel shop managed by the family’s neighbor, Abu Muhammad. “(He) felt bad for us, and offered my son Ibrahim a job,” Um Ibrahim said. “Ibrahim was very happy.” It was to be a short-lived period of happiness, however. In October, Ibrahim was killed when government airstrikes on the town hit the shop.
Bilal and Um Ibrahim continue to live in Douma, and the 10-year-old struggles with recurring nightmares from his time spent in prison. In order to support what remains of her family, Um Ibrahim cleans the houses of Douma’s wealthier residents, including employees of Jaish al-Islam, the group that imprisoned her children for the crime of stealing so that they might be able to eat.