AOAV: all our reportsReverberating effects of explosive violenceReverberating impacts in Syria

The reverberating social and cultural effects of explosive weapon use in Syria

·        6.6 million people are displaced inside Syria.

·        The conflict has led to over 5.6 million Syrian refugees.

·        A quarter of Syrian schools are estimated to be unusable owing to violence.

·        Over 45% of the school-aged children in Syria no longer attend education.

·        All six of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria have been severely damaged or destroyed.

·       Over 14,400 mosques have been destroyed across Syria since 2011.

Explosive violence predictably causes displacement and, when civilian infrastructure is highly damaged, leaves civilians displaced for significantly long periods of time. Such levels of infrastructural damage, along with environmental contamination, prevents people from returning and rebuilding. And, as AOAV has seen in other countries, the longer people are displaced, the less likely they are to return. In short, explosive destruction, and the displacement that follows, can alter cities and the communities that inhabit them beyond recognition.

In this section, AOAV examines the impact of such explosive violence on Syria’s society and culture.

Syrian refugee pictured in room he shares with his family in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Conflict is the main cause of displacement, and when explosive weapons are used, the need to flee is even greater and the length of displacement even longer. Furthermore, in Areas of Harm, a report by the civil society organisations PAX and Article 36, it was found that when explosive weapons were used in populated areas entire populations were not only displaced once, but repeatedly so.

Whilst multiple factors influence levels of displacement, there is a strong correlation between the numbers of casualties from explosive violence in a country, and the numbers of displaced persons. At least 6.6 million are displaced inside Syria. As explosive violence continues even greater levels face displacement. Between January and April 2018, over 920,000 people were newly displaced – the highest displacement rate since the beginning of the conflict, primarily caused by air campaigns on Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.

In Escaping the Bombing, Humanity and Inclusion found that, among Syrian refugees interviewed in Jordan, the threat of explosive weapons was the primary and overriding factor influencing their decision to flee the country. AOAV’s report The Refugee Explosion also found a high correlation between the rise in casualties from explosive violence and the numbers seeking refuge abroad. In total, Syria has seen approximately 5.6 million refugees, with Turkey hosting the largest number, with over 3.5 million.

Such mass displacement will have reverberations for generations to come. In AOAV’s report examining the long-term impacts of explosive violence in Sri Lanka we found that, more than eight years after the end of the conflict, many refugees had not returned. This left gaps in many areas of employment, particularly healthcare and education, and also left an aging population without familial structures they would have typically relied on. Many Tamils also spoke of their desire to join family or find new opportunities abroad, which they believed would be better than struggling in a post-conflict setting.

For many child refugees, their country of refuge will have been the only one they know, and there was a general consensus from organisations that AOAV met with that most refugees were likely to stay in their host countries.[i] For those refugees that do wish to return, even when the Syrian war ends it may take decades for some areas to be made habitable again, because of both ERW and the sheer levels of civilian infrastructure that need to be rebuilt.

One NGO told AOAV that, from their experience with Syrian refugees in Istanbul, they would expect about 80% to remain in their host country.[ii]  Another said that 90% would.[iii] Such high levels of permanent residency means the temporary plans host countries have in place for refugees are deeply unsuitable, exerting considerable pressure on the infrastructure and economies of host countries.

It is likely, though, that Syrian refugees will face pressure to leave when their homeland is seen as ‘safe’ to return to, despite the challenges and dangers returning could present. In Turkey, AOAV were told that – since the Afrin Olive Branch operation in Syria – there had been increasing pressure on Syrians to return, from both media and local populations. At the moment return is on a voluntary basis but there are concerns it may one day be enforced. It was reported that some authorities with the highest refugee populations were sending SMS messages to Syrians saying that it was safe to return and that their transport had been arranged.[iv] However, this could not be confirmed by other organisations.

Cultural sites
The impact of explosive violence to the cultural life of Syria cannot be ignored. Unlike some other forms of damage to infrastructure, destruction of cultural and historical sites is not easily remedied and can have a significant impact on the communities in these areas.

By March 2016, all six of the UNESCO World Heritage sites in Syria had been severely damaged or destroyed. In Aleppo alone, more than 150 cultural heritage sites have been damaged or destroyed, as well as many traditional houses. In particular, mosques have seen significant levels of destruction. Almost 39% of Syria’s mosques have been rendered unusable. In opposition-held towns and villages in Aleppo, Deir Ezzor, Hama, Damascus, Raqqa, Idlib and Homs, not a single mosque has reportedly escaped damage. Some of the most historical mosques have seen significant harm – with Ottoman-era Adliye Mosque in Aleppo’s Old City and the Seljuq-era Qishla Mosque in Hanano district lying in rubble. In total, over 14,400 mosques have been destroyed across Syria since 2011; of these, over 90% were destroyed since 2013.

For many communities though, it is not the loss of some of the main heritage sites across Syria that is the most pressing issue – many may not have even visited these places. For many Syrians, it is the loss of the buildings they saw every day as part of their normal routines – their markets and shops, businesses, homes and religious buildings – which can cause a profound scar in the cultural memory.[v]

AOAV spoke to an architect who has been interviewing people across Homs to better understand the needs for the reconstruction process. He told AOAV that people reported feeling like strangers in their own city: ‘they feel disorientated and have lost their sense of belonging, where they have lost not only the faces they used to see, but also the buildings, shops, and streets they used and visited.’[vi] There was also said to be a lot of concern amongst local populations that rebuilding would happen without consultation, distancing them further from that sense of belonging.

Clearly, explosive violence does more than just harm in a physical way – it has the ability to transform landscapes and cause deep cultural trauma – a trauma that could, in turn, lead to talk of the need for vengeance, thereby perpetuating the cycle of violence.  And so, while the preservation and restoration of art and architecture might not be at the forefront of donor’s minds when confronted with the enormity of Syria’s woes, it cannot be ignored if peace is ever to be fully realised.

The use of explosive violence in Syria has also, in many areas, altered gender roles and transformed women’s sense of identity. Explosive weapons cause destruction and disruption that can further put women at a disadvantage, especially given the cultural context of the conflict where, in general, women are often faced with an inferior status to men. Overall, those at most risk are displaced women and girls, widows or divorcees, those in female-headed households, and the disabled.

Nisreen, a journalist and Syrian refugee in Istanbul, Turkey.

Many women have been widowed, or forced to flee their homes, while others have had effectively to become heads of households. Amongst Syrian refugees in Lebanon, female-headed households were twice as likely to be in informal settlements, whilst more than half (56%) did not have any working members of the household. 50% faced food insecurity.

Those that have had the advantage of education and employment are able to more successfully navigate this new Syria, or as life as a refugee. However, in some communities, there still exists a stigma around women working, and where women struggle to access work, poverty is intensified and families are exposed to exploitation – including sex work, child labour (typically for male children) and early marriage (for female children).

Though more women in the workforce in Syria has forced some societal change, there are still particular struggles in areas such as civil society, media and politics, which continue to be seen as unsuitable for women by many. Furthermore, women working outside the home has not necessarily been indicative of more freedom, for some it is just an additional responsibility, whilst their husbands or other male family members remain in control. In some cases, it is thought that alongside the stress of years of war and poverty, women being pushed into the workplace is linked to an increased incidence of domestic violence, with male household members interpreting this as a threat to their traditional balance of power.

When AOAV met, for instance, a Syrian journalist working in Istanbul, she described the difficulties of working in the media; she herself worked in an organisation where she was the only female reporter. In particular, despite having more experience and qualifications than most her colleagues, she was made to work longer hours and for a lower salary than her male colleagues.[vii] Her experience was not unique: it is common amongst Syrian refugee populations for working women to earn less than working men. In Lebanon, working women earn on average just 77% of what working men earn.

Some organisations have focused on teaching skills and languages to refugee women to assist them in finding employment. At one NGO, Small Projects Istanbul, AOAV were told that only approximately 10% of the women coming to their social enterprise workshop had previous work experience.[viii]

Over the course of the conflict, reports from UN agencies have also continuously circulated about Syrian women being sexually exploited by those delivering aid. This was particularly the case for those in female-headed households. Much of this seems to be ignored. Refugee and displacement camps are also locations of increased risk of sexual exploitation and violence. In addition, the levels of displacement have put women and girls at increased risk of sex-trafficking.

The culture and stigma around rape and sexual harassment means women are often blamed and thought to bring shame upon the family when it occurs. As a result, women may not collect aid if there is a risk of sexual exploitation, or a risk that others may think this is how they accessed aid. Others accept they must resort to survival sex to access aid or earn money. There has also been a rise in women forced to engage in serial ‘temporary marriages’, allowing men to have sex with them in exchange for payment or material support before the marriage is annulled – the ‘marriage’ can last as little as a few hours. The proliferation of arms and the breakdown of support structures caused by the violence, has meant that honour killings have also risen in Syria.

Woman are also less likely to own a passport – just 2% of women, compared to 20% of men own a passport – as well as other documentation. This makes it difficult to cross borders and proves challenging in regard to housing, land and property rights, which the conflict has made more necessary. The loss of documents in bombardment or other violence, leaves women especially vulnerable.

Two Syrian refugee children at the Rainbow centre in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Before the conflict began in 2011, child enrolment in formal education in Syria stood at about 95%.  However, the number of children accessing education has since dropped significantly, with children and teachers killed, schools destroyed, families displaced and increased levels of poverty all hampering children’s ability to safely access education.

AOAV has recorded 2,432 casualties from the use of explosive violence on schools. Far more schools, though, have been impacted than AOAV’s data reveals. According to the Ministry of Education, more than 6,500 schools in Syria have been destroyed, damaged, used as shelters for the displaced, or taken over by armed groups since the war began in 2011. Save the Children estimates that the number of destroyed schools could be over 14,000. This means that over one in three schools there has been rendered unusable by violence. It is estimated that repairing Syria’s education sector will cost over £2billion.

According to figures provided by the Syrian Center for Policy Research (SCPR), over 45% of the school-aged children in Syria were no longer attending school between 2015 and 2016. Furthermore, by the end of 2015, lost years of schooling at all educational levels was said to represent ‘a human capital debit of 24.5 million lost years, which represents a deficit of USD 16.5 billion in human capital investment.’

And while this national outlook is poor, in some areas, the impact of the violence has been far worse. In Aleppo, for instance, where some of the highest levels of explosive violence have been seen, basic education enrolment has stood as low as 6%.

The outlook remains poor. Schools remain destroyed and lost years of education are accumulating. Experts and human rights officials have warned that this loss in education could lead to a lost generation; many children will have been out of school now for over seven years. It is a loss of education that leads to further strains on economies, employment and poverty.

Refugee children
Of the 4.8 million Syrian refugees registered in neighbouring states, around 35% are of school age. Those in education stands at under half that, with 900,000 Syrian school-aged refugee children not attending school. Access to education remains highly dependent on the location of the refugee child. Of school-aged children in Turkey, only 39% are enrolled in education. Similarly, in Lebanon, the number stands at 40%. In Jordan, though, the amount jumps to 70%.

Syrian refugee children at the Rainbow centre in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Even when education is made available, there are challenges. Tuition in refugee hosting countries may be taught in another language, a reality that puts Syrian refugee children often one to three years behind in their education.[ix] Some children end up dropping out of education because of such barriers and differences.[x] According to the head of the Rainbow education charity in Gaziantep, which provides free education to children prior to them joining Turkish schools, almost all children that come to the centre have three kinds of problems: bed-wetting, speech impairments, and fear.[xi]

With higher education, Syrians face similar issues. The barriers to such include fees, language barriers, access to materials and further economic difficulties. Of Syrians who graduated from one of the Arabic programmes in Gaziantep University in 2016, for instance, more than 70% could speak either no Turkish or just a few words.[xii] While some students – about 14% of students on the programme in 2015, as one example – had family members to care for. Some universities teaching Syrians reported that some students tried to bring family members and young children with them to classes, but the institutions had to put a stop to this but there remains no child care facilities available.[xiii]

Children are among one of the most vulnerable segments of any population and in Syria have suffered a wide variety of impacts from explosive violence that are specific to them and their future. The barriers to education, as mentioned, are particularly devastating. Such a lack of education prevents them from accessing sanctuaries of learning and play, and harms future prospects. The impact of explosive weapons also impacts them psychologically – many are unable to rationalise and process what is happening in the same way adults might. In Syria, 44% of children are said to show signs of distress.[xiv]

Displacement and violence have also led families to realities that can prove harmful to children. The most common of these appear to be forcing their children into early marriage, taking their children out of school, becoming reliant on humanitarian assistance, and begging, according to a survey conducted by the Protection Monitoring Task Force. Prior to the war, such behaviours were rarely socially accepted, but the poverty that the war has ushered in has meant these ways of coping have become increasingly common.[xv]

A Syrian boy waits to be picked up at the Rainbow centre in Gaziantep, Turkey.

The same survey, conducted across the north of Syria, found that 92% of respondents said that some or most of the children were working, with similar responses both in and out of camps. 33% of respondents then stated that either some or most of their working children were being mistreated. Such mistreatment included work greatly disproportionate to their physical build or capacity, having to carry extremely heavy materials, and being forced to work very long hours. Their parents also described how their children received low and incommensurate wages. Children were also exposed to systemic verbal and sometimes physical abuse and bullying at workplaces, which negatively impacts their psychological state. Those children that are working are often doing so in jobs that adults refuse to take, often for poor wages in unsafe environments. Typical examples include factory work, work in crude oil facilities, and garbage collection.

Children also make up the majority of blast victims in post-conflict situations.[xvi] This has many a long-term impact on those young lives, especially as paediatric blast injury is not well understood and affects children vastly differently to adults. It often results in illiteracy as it creates barriers for education, as well as isolation, and further physical and psychological harm.[xvii] In Syria today, 25% of those injured in the violence are estimated to be under 18 – most injured as a result of airstrikes and other explosive weapons.[xviii] Additionally, when it is a parent that is injured, children are also likely to see negative impacts, including child labour and poverty.

The destruction and damage from explosive weapons leave deep scars upon communities. Homes become unrecognisable, and people can lose their sense of identity as societies shift to survive. Children consistently appear to be amongst the worst impacted from such changes. Many are forced to give up education and, with that, the futures they might have had – all the time coping with further traumas that erupt around them.

To read the full report, key findings, other sections, or another related articles, interviews and videos, please see here.


[i]According to AOAV’s interviews with refugees in Turkey, as well as with organisations and experts working with refugees across Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Europe and Canada.

[ii] Interview with representatives from Citizen’s Assembly, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 1st 2018.

[iii] Interview with Emre Ozdemir from Small Projects Istanbul in Istanbul, Turkey. October 31st 2018.

[iv] Interview with representatives from Citizen’s Assembly, in Istanbul, Turkey, November 1st 2018.

[v] Interview with an architect from Homs, via Skype. October 8th 2018.

[vi] Interview with an architect from Homs, via Skype. October 8th 2018.

[vii] Syrian refugee in Istanbul, interviewed October 30th 2018.

[viii] Interview with a representative from Small Projects Istanbul in Istanbul, Turkey. October 31st 2018.

[ix] Interview with Salim at the Rainbow Education Center in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 24th 2018.

[x] Interview with Mira Hamour, Documentary Filmmaker, Director and Producer of ‘Syrian Tent Cities’, via Skype. October 2nd 2018.

[xi] Interview with Salim at the Rainbow Education Center in Gaziantep, Turkey. October 24th 2018.

[xii] Interview with a representative from the Arabic programme at Gaziantep University, Turkey, October 26th 2018, and see, Spark, ‘Voices of Students at Gaziantep University’, December 22 2016, Last accessed: 19/01/2019.

[xiii] Interview with a representative from the Arabic programme at Gaziantep University, Turkey, October 26th 2018.

[xiv] Presentation by Burcin Cevik, International Rescue Committee, Child Protection Sub-Cluster meeting in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23rd 2018.

[xv] Interview with Francesco Baldo, UNDP Syrian Early Recovery coordinator via Skype. October 16th 2018.

[xvi] Emily Mayhew at the Blast Injury Conference at Imperial College, November 22nd 2018, and evidenced by the number of ERW casualties in International Campaign to Ban Landmines, 2018. ‘Landmine Monitor 2018’, November 2018. Last accessed: 18/01/2019.

[xvii] Emily Mayhew at the Blast Injury Conference at Imperial College, November 22nd 2018.

[xviii] Presentation by Keiko Tamura, Head of Programmes, HIHFAD, Child Protection Sub-Cluster meeting in Gaziantep, Turkey, October 23rd 2018.