RAQQA, Syria – Omar was playing with his friends among the rubble of ravaged buildings in the Syrian city of Raqqa when a stroke of misfortune led him to step on one of the thousands of mines the Islamic State terror organization left behind as it fled its former self-proclaimed capital.
He lost both legs.
The explosion that maimed Omar struck shortly after the liberation of the northeastern Syrian city, once a crown in the jewel in IS’s so-called caliphate, which fell to the United States-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Oct. 2017 after a short but bloody military campaign.
“A mine exploded when I was playing with my friends,” Omar, 10, told Efe in a conversation alongside his friend Firas in a Raqqa classroom brightened by pink walls.
It was IS that “planted the mine that exploded under me,” he added, with a stern face.
IS planted mines across the city in a cruel bid to prevent civilians fleeing the extremist group’s final battle with the SDF, which had launched an operation to capture the city in June 2017.
These explosive devices, a hangover from the city’s three-year occupation, continue to present one of the greatest threats to the inhabitants of Raqqa.
“I didn’t have legs, other kids played with bicycles, but I couldn’t,” Omar said.
The Hope Makers organization, a humanitarian group that specializes in helping those traumatized by war and providing medical attention to amputees, saw Omar’s case on Facebook.
They contacted the young Syrian and provided him with a set of prosthetic legs.
Nowadays, Omar attends a school set up by another NGO, Future Makers, where his classmates are also victims of the conflict.
“I am happy here, they teach me math and many things, in the future, I want to be a journalist,” he said, a smile creeping across his face.
Omar naturally still has a little difficulty walking – it has been a tough process for him – but he is helped by his friend Firas.
The pair are inseparable.
Sitting at a classroom desk, Omar only asks for one thing: “I want you to help give prosthetics to Syrian children so they can walk and have a normal life.”
Khawla, a nine-year-old girl of a shy nature, succumbed to a similar fate.
She gave Efe an account of her new life as she sat on the carpet of her humble family home, a rented apartment in Raqqa.
She was left severely injured down her left side when she stepped on a mine while playing with friends and sifting through detritus left behind by the war, as children here often do.
She now wears a prosthesis from the hip down.
“After the prosthesis, going to school is easier, I couldn’t play before,” she whispers, barely opening her mouth, which forms an introverted smile, under the watchful gaze of her two little brothers.
A van comes to pick her up for school every day and brings her back home after class.
The apartment where she lives is only accessible by a set of stairs, which Khawla has learned to skillfully maneuver in spite of her injury.
A little withdrawn and overwhelmed, Khawla said how happy she was at school.
She envisions a future as a nurse, as she hopes to be able to help others.
Mahmoud al-Hadi, a coordinator for Hope Makers, told Efe while accompanying Khawla that she and Omar have the same problem: “They are growing while the prosthesis isn’t.”
They need to change the prosthetic legs every six months before the fitting starts to hurt the children.
However, the NGO, which only opened in Raqqa four months ago, is struggling to finance its operations.
Al-Hadi was of the opinion that offering prostheses to children in need was the most significant step in providing psychological support.
It provided the groundwork for the reintegration of these young victims of war into a society in Raqqa that was still rebuilding itself.
IS swept to power in the city in 2014.
Firas Mamdouh, the NGO’s director, told Efe that there were an estimated 4,000 cases of amputation in northeastern Syria, the vast majority of them children.
Itan al Ahmed, the only prosthesis specialist in northeast Syria, said he knew of about 200 children who had lost their right hand in the conflict.
IS used to intentionally amputate the right hands of young people and children as a punishment, he said.
Mines and heartless acts of violence have imperiled the childhood of youngsters forced to live under the yoke of the extremists.
But the likes of Omar and Khawla now look to overcome their difficulties and stride confidently into the future.