The children caught in Syria’s war are not always innocent bystanders

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Mokhles is fourteen.
Ahmad said: "amid so much killing there is no room to fear death," Photo: ITV News

The children caught up in Syria’s war are not always innocent bystanders.

Mokhles is fourteen, an apparently willing conscript to a rebel army that has given him a gun and a cause he values higher than his young life.

Warning: This report contains distressing images of a dead child.

"Only when the regime falls will I go home," he says. "If I die a martyr, so what?"

It is a war crime to recruit a child of his age.

But international law mattered less to Mokhles than the objections of his parents.

And they tried but failed to keep him out of harm’s way.

It is a war crime to recruit child soldiers.
It is a war crime to recruit child soldiers.

"My uncles were killed, my friends were killed. My blood was boiling," he explains. "I couldn’t sit at home any longer.

"Mokhles shows us how he can strip down and re-assemble a rifle.

Later, he takes up a sniper’s position and takes a couple of shots. He says he's looking forward to the day he can take part in the fighting.

It is not just rebel groups who are accused of using and abusing children in a war that has claimed 1,700 victims under the age of ten. Pro-regime forces are said to forced children to fight, to carry supplies, and to act as human shields.

Ahmad said: "amid so much killing there is no room to fear death,"
Ahmad said: "amid so much killing there is no room to fear death," Credit: ITV News

At sixteen, Mokhles’ comrade Ahmad is something of a veteran. He joined their brigade on the outskirts of Homs a year ago; and has fought, he boasts, in many battles since.

"For sure everyone here is a little bit afraid," he says. "But really amid so much killing there is no room to fear death," he says.

Mokhles has an uncle in the brigade; Ahmad an older brother. It is a familiar pattern of recruitment, according to Rob Williams of the charity War Child.

It is a war crime to recruit child soldiers.
It is a war crime to recruit child soldiers. Credit: ITV News

"There are no estimates of how many young people are fighting," he says, "but it’s a growing problem, and it's growing because opposition forces are growing.

"Two years ago they were farmers and shopkeepers - but the whole population is being militarised. More and more people are being sucked in.

"Even if you're a refugee outside the country there are forces looking to recruit young men."

The United Nations believes 86 children have been killed taking part in combat.

Mokhles and Ahmad have already sacrificed their childhood.