BEIRUT (AP) — Abdullah, a 9-year-old orphaned by Syria's civil war, was piled in to van by his uncle as gunfire rattled around them. One of the last things the boy says he saw in his hometown was the uncle falling, shot, as the van full of strangers took him away on a treacherous, 3-day journey to neighboring Lebanon.
Once in Beirut, the boy fell into the hands of a criminal gang specialized in exploiting the most vulnerable victims of the conflict next door. They put him to work selling flowers and gum on the street, beating him if he didn't bring them enough money.
The conflict that has ravaged Syria for more than 2 ½ years has hit the country's children hard. Out of an estimated 93,000 killed, around 7,000 are children below the age of 15. Tens of thousands are believed to have been wounded. Hundreds of thousands of children have had their lives upended, fleeing their homes with their families either to different parts of Syria or abroad. Unknown numbers have been detained.
And untold numbers have witnessed violence, anything from bombardment of their neighborhoods to the sight of dead bodies fished from rivers or pulled from streets.
Syria "will have to face a generation of children who lost their childhood, have a lot of hate and are illiterate," Leila Zerrougui, the United Nations' special representative for children and armed conflict, said Thursday. She spoke in Beirut after a 3-day visit inside Syria, where she met with both government officials and rebel commanders fighting to topple President Bashar Assad's regime.
Education is one of the most obvious problems from the child victims of the conflict in the country of 24 million people. A recent report by the Britain-based charity Save the Children estimated that hundreds of thousands of children have not attended school in the past two years. It warned that the civil war is reversing one of Syria's main pre-war achievements — in 2010, nearly all children of school age had completed primary school.
Inside Syria, thousands of schools have been destroyed. Others serve as shelters for displaced families. Some 5 million people have been driven from their homes, fleeing either elsewhere in Syria or abroad, around half of them children under 18.
For those who flee into Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere, the U.N. has set up schools programs in refugee camps. But it is struggling to keep up with demand — and most of the 1.7 million Syrian refugees don't live in camps. Zerrougui estimated that around half of the nearly 900,000 refugee children do not go to school, and 70 percent of those that do drop out.
"By not providing education, you are robbing the children of their future," Yoka Brandi, deputy executive director of UNICEF, told The Associated Press in Damascus. "Education is a protection measure, because when children are in school, they are less vulnerable."
Abdullah never entered primary school. By the time he should have been starting the first grade, his hometown in the northern province of Idlib was engulfed by fierce fighting between Assad's forces and the rebels. At some point earlier this year, both his parents were killed, caught in a cross-fire during clashes.
"I wanted to run away because I was afraid I will die," said Abdullah, who is now living in the church-run House of Hope shelter for street children in the mountains overlooking Beirut. He told AP that he was fleeing with his uncle, who took him to a van taking people into Lebanon.
After loading Abdullah in the van, the uncle was shot before he could join him, Abdullah said. It took three days to make it to Lebanon, crossing military checkpoints and through front lines of fighting. He remembered the car being stopped by men with guns and at times he hid on the floor, he said.
The shelter requested that he and another boy interviewed by AP be identified only by their first names.
In the office of the shelter's director, the frail-looking Abdullah spoke hesitantly, often falling silent. He couldn't say exactly when his parents were killed or when he fled to Lebanon. When asked about his life since reaching Lebanon, he turned away and grew restless. He slid off the chair and asked if he could leave, and left the room soon after.
About a month ago, he was brought to the House of Hope after police picked him for working illegally on the street, the director Maher Tabarawi said. Like many Syrian boys and girls who end up alone in Lebanon, Abdullah ended up in the hands of a criminal gang that put him to work, then beat him and kept food from him if he failed to bring in enough money, Tabarawi said.
"It was either jail for juvenile delinquents or our place, so we took him in," Tabarawi said of Abdullah.
Another boy, Khunder, a 14-year-old from Syria's Turkoman ethnic minority, said he fled alone from the northern city of Aleppo after his father was shot to death while trying to move the family from their house on the front line. The city has been a battle zone divided between rebels and the regime since last year.
"There was a lot of fighting in our neighborhood and I ran away," Khunder said. He left behind his mother and three brothers. In Lebanon, he too ended up forced to work by a gang.
House of Hope was established 13 years ago to help Lebanese street children. Most of the 70 children in the two-story house are now Syrians, aged three to 18 years old, Tabarawi said. Volunteers teach the children how to read and write.
The Violations Documentation Center in Syria, an activist group that keeps track of the war's casualties and missing, says 4,939 boys and 2,193 girls under the age of 15 have been killed in the war. More than 1,000 children are in detention, it said.
On Thursday, warplanes hit the town of Saraqeb in Idlib province, killing at least five people and burying dozens under destroyed homes. At least 10 children and women were among the wounded, the Britain-based Observatory for Human Rights said.
An online activist videos showed a frenzied crowd searching for survivors. A man is seen asking a boy about his father.
"I don't know, he is under the rubble," the boy said, pointing to the wreckage. "My father is still here."
The video was consistent with AP reporting on the airstrike. In other fighting Thursday, at least 12 pro-government gunmen were killed in clashes in the central city of Homs, and five soldiers were killed in a booby-trapped home in the Damascus neighborhood of Qaboun, the Observatory reported.
Zerrougui, the special envoy, said government forces and opposition fighters continue to commit grave violations against children, including rebel recruitment of children under 18 into combat. She said she had urged opposition forces to stop the practice and asked the government to consider child fighters as victims, not as combatants.
Rights groups routinely report on teenagers imprisoned by the regime and sometimes beaten and tortured.
One of the most shocking cases was that of Hamza al-Khatib, a 13-year-old from the southern village of Jiza in Daraa province, where the uprising first broke out in March 2011. Al-Khatib was arrested at an anti-government demonstration on April 29, 2011. His mutilated body was delivered to his family weeks later.
Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, contributed to this report.