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A Syrian Mother Talks About Her Son, Sold Into Battle

The trafficking of young men as soldiers is on the rise in Syria. One mother thought her 16-year-old was being taken to find medical treatment, until she saw a photo of him in uniform.

A young Free Syrian Army soldier in Ma'loula, western Syria
A young Free Syrian Army soldier in Ma'loula, western Syria
Youmna al-Dimashqi and Karen Leigh

Human trafficking rings have flourished since the start of the Syrian conflict, with children and other victims being sold across borders into Lebanon, Egypt and other Arab countries. Some children are trafficked for sex or labor — and others, namely young men, are driven into battle.

In 2010, the year before the conflict began, Lebanon's Internal Security Force recorded eight trafficking victims. In 2013, the number rose to 27, with 24 traffickers convicted. Many more cases go undocumented.

Umm Omar, 35, is the mother of one of the victims. Originally from Talbesa, a suburb of Homs, she saw her husband killed and her family home destroyed by shelling. Eighteen months ago, she fled to Egypt with her boys, ages 16 and 10. Her older son, Mohammad, had suffered second-degree burns when the mortar hit their house.

Once she arrived in Egypt, she was befriended and eventually duped by a woman from Homs who said she would take Mohammad to Turkey for better medical care. Instead, the woman sold him into servitude, to a rebel fighting brigade. Analysts say the practice is common now in Syria, even among moderate opposition groups.

“Depraved groups take advantage of people to grow their child trafficking rings,” says Omar. “Parents often lose their children because of their naïveté, turning children, the ultimate symbol of peace, to a new tool of war in Syria.”

In February 2013, Syrian government forces seized children under 18 years old at checkpoints, and government-affiliated militia used sectarian affiliation, kinship systems and cash to fill their ranks, according to a UN report. “These methods may have led to the recruitment of child soldiers,” it says. “Children were also used as informers; government, government-affiliated and opposition forces punished ‘informants’ with judicial or extrajudicial execution. It also reported the deaths of 17 children fighting for the Free Syrian Army.”

In her own words

This is how Umm Omar describes her ordeal:

I have many relatives and friends here, and the cost of living in Egypt is low compared to the cost of living in Lebanon or Turkey.

I used to receive some food and monetary aid from UNHCR. I had a small monthly paycheck for $100, but that’s only after they saw my injured son, who needs constant treatment, and my youngest son, who has to go school. I used to receive some assistance from charities responsible for helping Syrians or from other people we know.

At that point a woman I'll call F.K., also from Homs, started visiting me to help me after she heard about my situation. She was the cousin of a man who used to work at a store we owned, so I trusted her.

She seemed happy to have bumped into me. She helped me several times, as she has a large network of connections. This relationship lasted for several months, when she would visit me and help me out.

When she learned about my son’s medical condition, she made me an offer. She suggested I send my son to Turkey where a UN official responsible for following up on Syrian refugees would receive him. She said the official would pay all of the expenses, and as soon as my son recovers, he would either be brought back or I would be given a plane ticket to go and live with him there. Our current situation doesn’t allow us to travel together.

In the beginning, I was very hesitant. My son is too young to travel on his own, but when I saw him deteriorate, I agreed, especially after she told me a group from Egypt would go with him so I wouldn’t worry. I got my son ready and I said my good-byes, unbeknownst to me that he would return to where we fled from.

The lady took care of all the travel expenses and the plane ticket. When my son arrived in Turkey, the group he was with handed him over to another group. After Mohammad got there, his phone calls became less frequent. I often asked him why he didn’t get in touch more often, and he used to say he didn’t have any Internet connection. I eventually realized that the group he was living with was keeping tabs on him.

He stayed in Turkey for a week, but then he disappeared for a week. When I asked F.K. about him, she said he was busy with blood tests and doctor's visits.

One day, my son sent me a photo of himself in a military suit, carrying arms, wearing a black headband and writing religious slogans on a wall. I started screaming, “What is this? How did you get there? What’s happening? Where are you?”

I later learned that my son had been dispatched to the border where his brigade was stationed, and where it had military training camps for foreign recruits. My son was one of them.

He started calling me secretly, without anyone noticing. He used to send me pictures sporting different types of weapons. One time he was handling a Doshka. Another time he was carrying a Kalashnikov. But the worst was when I saw him wearing an explosive belt. When I asked him what it was, he said, “It’s an explosive belt because I’m training to carry out a suicide mission.”

He didn’t know what he was saying. After all, he’s only a child. Sometimes, you see him happy with arms, but other times he’s scared. But there’s no place for fear there. My child fears his brigade commander, and if he objects to their orders, he will be killed.

Since I realized that my son is in Syria, F.K. no longer takes my phone calls. I now tell people about her and what she’s done to me. When she caught wind of it, she got in touch with my son's brigade commander.

The man called me and threatened me that if I say one more word about this subject, I will lose my son, and potentially, my life as well.

Currently, I’m talking to a social worker at UNHCR to resolve this problem. I speak to her in secret because, as you know, the UN has no access to these areas in Syria. They won’t be able to help me. They could try to get my son back to Egypt, but the first problem is getting him out of Syria.

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FOCUS: Israel-Palestine War

Bibi Blinked: How The Ceasefire Deal Could Flip Israel's Whole Gaza War Logic

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pushed ahead a deal negotiated via Qatar, for a four-day truce and an exchange of 50 hostages for 150 Palestinian prisoners. Though the humanitarian and political pressure was mounting, Israel's all-out assault is suddenly halted, with unforeseen consequences for the future.

photo of someone holding a poster of a hostage

Families of Israeli hostages rally in Jerusalem

Nir Alon/ZUMA
Pierre Haski

Updated Nov. 22, 2023 at 8:55 p.m.


PARIS — It's the first piece of good news in 46 days of war. In the early hours of Wednesday, Israel agreed to a deal that included a four-day ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages held by Hamas — 30 children and 20 women — in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, again women and children. The real question is what happens next.

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But first, this agreement, negotiated through the intermediary of Qatar, whose role is essential in this phase, must be implemented right away. This is a complex negotiation, because unlike the previous hostage-for-prisoner exchanges, it is taking place in the midst of a major war.

On the Palestinian side, although Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is present in Doha, he does not make the decision alone — he must have the agreement of the leaders of the military wing, who are hiding somewhere in Gaza. It takes 24 hours to send a message back and forth. As you can imagine, it's not as simple as a phone call.

And on the Israeli side, a consensus had to be built around the agreement. Benjamin Netanyahu's far-right allies were opposed to the deal — in line with their eradication logic — even at the cost of Israeli lives. But the opposition of these discredited parties was ignored, and that will leave its mark.

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