The childrens’ small hands wash down the marble gravestone with great tenderness, rubbing at the black letters that spell out their friends’ names.
The stone marks the grave of two sisters, Rama and Nur, killed when a barrel bomb landed in the yard of the Ayn Jalout school in Aleppo in April. Twenty-five children died that day.
“We need more water, the plants are thirsty.” Diaa – at 14 the oldest in the group – shouts at her brothers, before turning to scold her five-year-old sister Sarah, who has accidentally stepped on the grave.
“Don’t! It’s forbidden – God will burn you in hell for that,” she tells her.
Nur and Rama are buried in the Martyrs’ Cemetery in Aleppo’s Salah al-Din neighbourhood. It used to be a park, but was turned into a graveyard as the death toll in the city spiralled.
After finishing the clean-up and reciting the first verse of the Koran as is customary, Diaa shouts to her little band, “And now to the slide”.
A small section of the park has been retained as a playground, with an old metal slide and a swing.
There are 20 children here, so they have to take turns. Some hang off metal bars and do acrobatics, others push and shove in the queue for those already on the slide to speed up.
Diaa gives the order for a new game to start. “Now let’s play war!”
Immediately, the group splits in two – the Free Syrian Army and President Assad’s military.
Diaa’s sister Manar is among the handful who agree to be on the government side, and complains, “It isn’t fair; there are just four of us and 14 of you.”
They make various shooting noises, and tell me what each one represents.
“I have a Kalashnikov,” says six-year-old Ahmad.
“You weakling,” replies While Mahmoud, aged four. “I’ve got a ‘23’ machine gun… chu-chu-chu.” (Simulating a heavy, Russian-made ZU-23 cannon.)
“We have an injury,” Diaa announces. “I volunteer to be the paramedic.”
As she checks over the prone figure of Sarah, she says, “Don’t smile, you idiot. Injured people cry out with pain, they don’t smile.”
Diaa knows this from first-hand experience. A trained paramedic who volunteered at a first-aid point last year when she was just 13, she dealt with many injuries.
One memory that sticks in her mind is that of a little girl who came in with burns. “She was crying with pain and I couldn’t calm her down. It was terrible to be helpless,” she recalls.
“Another case was a man who was hit by a missile and lost the lower part of his body,” she says, pointing from her waist to her feet.
When I ask whether she was scared by such sights, Diaa replies, “I’m used to it. I have even seen a beheaded man who was killed by ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] when they were here”.
Her sisters Manar and Nur laugh at me and say, “You look scared! We’re used to it. Blood and bodies stopped being scary for us about two years ago.”
As the children gather to discuss what game to play next, I take this opportunity to ask them what they want to do when they are older.
“I want to be an engineer so as to rebuild our house in Salah al-Din neighborhood which was destroyed by Assad’s forces,” says Ahmad, 6.
Sarah says, “I’m going to be a teacher, a tough one with a stick to beat those naughty kids in my class.”
I ask another child his name, and he says “Abullah Abu Bakr al-Siddiq” – he has adopted the name of the first Caliph, the Prophet Muhammmad’s father-in-law. I ask what they call him at home, and he says “Abodi”.
“Ok, Abodi, what do you want to be when you’re older?” I ask. His reply – “I want to be a jihadi and be martyred while fighting for Islam.”
Diaa’s dream is to became a lawyer so as to “secure rights for my mum which have been suppressed by our society”.
Asked the same question, her younger sister Manar, says, “I don’t think I will be anything. I believe I will die before I grow older. I want to die as soon as possible to be rid of this ugly, fearful life.”
I ask her whether she fears death, and she says, “What I am afraid of is dying alone. I want to die with my mother or my siblings so as not to be bored and afraid, alone in the grave”.
At this, everyone laughs and starts talking about what they will take to the grave to amuse themselves with. Mahmoud plans to take a small TV. But when Nur reminds him that there is no electricity in the cemetery, he thinks for a while and then decides to take his little sister Sarah instead.
As afternoon comes, adults start arriving at the cemetery. Mothers, sisters and wives come to water and visit the tombs of their beloved ones.
The only graves that get no visitors are those of ISIS fighters killed by the Free Syrian Army in a battle in January.
The mother of Nur and Rama comes every day to pray for them and make sure the grave is well tended. Then she starts showing pictures of her little daughters to other the women there. They know the pictures by heart now, but pretend to be seeing them for the first time, ask the same questions and making the same comments.
Over in the playground section, meanwhile, the sounds of shouting and arguing continue, with the occasional scream as a child falls over and hurts itself. When they stray too far to the left side of the cemetery, the park-keeper barks, “Don’t go into the sniper zone, you naughty kids! Get away from there.”
About one third of the park area is exposed to regime snipers who shoot at anything that moves. The children say many people have been shot there, but that they are locals and know where not to go. When a displaced family arrives in the neighbourhood, the new children are told which areas are dangerous.
Although Salah al-Din is among the worst damaged areas of Aleppo, displaced persons often choose to live there precisely because it is on the front line and thus less likely to be bombarded by government forces. It is a choice between barrel bombs and sniper bullets.
I turn to the group of children and ask which of them wants to live. Only two out of ten raise their hands.
“I want to play more,” one of the two, Yasmine, says. Sarah’s ambition is to “eat more chocolate and crisps”. “If I live longer, maybe I’ll get to try new kinds,” she explains.
The dusk of evening falls, and the black-clad women dry their tears and start moving off. Fathers call their children to go home.
“Are you coming tomorrow as well?” Ahmad asks me. “If not, please visit us in heaven.”
This article is published on IWPR website on the 05-09-2014