ALEPPO — With Syria's civil war now its fifth year and showing no sign of ending, virtually all sides have been recruiting and training children to kill. Situated in the opposition-controlled outskirts of Aleppo, the Abdul Razzaq Military Academy is one of the most organized programs for preparing youngsters for the battlefield.
Established by Sergeant Abdul Razzaq, a Syrian army defector, the academy's instructors train some 150 children from surrounding areas on the grounds of an abandoned school in the village of Ehtemlat for two hours a day.
Other than saying that the academy is "the achievement of his lifetime," Razzaq declines to comment, but several parents whose children attend the academy agreed to speak with Syria Deeply.
Abu Ahmad, a 55-year-old grocer, explains that he decided to send his 14-year-old son Saaed to train at the school because three of his sons had already died while fighting against President Bashar al-Assad's government forces. "Saaed doesn't go to school," Ahmad says. "It's good that he's trained so he can join one of the military factions before ISIS arrives here and executes him. I prefer to see him on the battlefront than in prison or dead."
With children surrounded by bloodshed across the country, the academy has no trouble filling its ranks. Admission is free and expenses are minimal because of the short daily operating hours. In most cases, participants and their parents say, attendees bring their own guns or obtain them from armed factions in exchange for enlisting after they complete their training.
Explaining that she disagrees with her husband, Umm Ahmad says that she wishes Saaed didn't attend the academy. "Abdul Razzaq is an insane person who should be banned from recruiting children," she says. "They are children, and he brags about turning them into professional killers. I still don't understand what my husband likes about this academy, or how a father can send his 14-year-old son to become a killing machine."
Letta Tayler, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says that arming children in war "is clearly a war crime." Although she says her organization is aware opposition groups from across the political spectrum — including ISIS and al-Nusra Front, the Syrian arm of al-Qaeda — have recruited children, "We have no idea how many when it comes to numbers or percentages," she says.
Based on interviews with 25 child soldiers, a June 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that "children who wished to leave armed groups and resume a civilian life said they had few options to do so."
"All of the armed groups have taken insufficient measures to prevent children from joining their ranks, not asking or verifying through documents children's real ages when they joined, or failing to turn children away," the report concluded.
A boy with a Kalashnikov
Omar, 15, left school to join the academy. Today, he boasts of having mastered weapons such as the AK-47, or Kalashnikov, in less than a month. "Sergeant Abdul Razzaq said I must also learn to become a sniper because of my good aim," he says, explaining that he struggles because "the rifle is too heavy."
Omar is inspired by his two older brothers — Ammar, 36, and Imran, 32 — who fight in the Free Syrian Army"s (FSA) al-Tawhid Brigade.
The first week-long phase of the military program consists exclusively of athletic training, such as climbing walls and jumping over fire. The second week incorporates weapons and simulates battle scenarios. "At that point you feel ready to join one of the brigades, but Abdul Razzaq requires us to finish the whole course," Omar says. "During the fourth week, I became much better at using the Kalashnikov, although it's also very heavy."
Although his parents enrolled him in the academy, Omar worries that when he finishes his mother won't allow him to join the armed groups such as the FSA's al-Tawhid Brigade. Khadouj, his 57-year-old mother, explains that Omar's older brothers encouraged him to join the academy.
"My sons registered him there because they wanted to avenge the deaths of nine of our family members who died in a bombing in our area," she says. "They will bear the responsibility for whatever happens to him. I wanted him to continue his education, but they pushed him to learn how to murder instead." Children shouldn't be "accustomed to scenes of death, blood and body parts."
But it's not just opposition groups who have recruited children for battle. The Syrian government and pro-Assad militias have also been accused of sending kids to the front lines. The People's Protection Units (YPG) — a Kurdish militia backed by the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS — has also reportedly used children in both military and civilian roles throughout the conflict.
"Most, if not all, sides to the conflict in Syria and Iraq have been deploying child soldiers to one degree or another," Tayler says. "This is an unspeakable horror for the children. It's an unspeakable anguish for the parents."
Meanwhile, back in Ehtemlat, Omar is eager to leave home. "My mom wants me to go back to school and not the front," he says. "I don't know how I'll go. I may have to run away."