Saja in Aleppo

SAJA'S STORY: Saja, 13, lost her four best friends and her leg - as well as dream of being a gymnast - in a bomb attack on the Bab Al-Nairab neighbourhood in eastern Aleppo more than two years ago. Despite that - and losing her brother in another attack - she resolutely walks to school in western Aleppo every day and, with a passion for football, dreams of one day being in the Special Olympics. "My wish for Syria’s future is that it goes back to the way it was," she says. "No more war. I hope that we can go out and know that we will come back safely, not go out and never return home. To live like we used to." Saja, who was only seven when the conflict began, says football helps her escape the conflict - if only for a short time. "When I play football, I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything at all." PICTURE:© UNICEF/UN055883/Al-Issa

At least 652 children were killed in Syria in 2016 - a 20 per cent increase on the previous year - with more than a third of them killed in or near a school, according to UNICEF.

The UN's child-focused agency said in addition to those killed, some 647 children were injured last year - up 25 per cent from 2015 - while more than 850 children were recruited by armed groups, a figure twice the number of that in 2015. They said children are increasingly being used to fight on the frontlines and are, in extreme cases, executioners, suicide bombers and prison guards.

Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said the depth of suffering being faced by children in Syria is "unprecedented". "Millions of children in Syria come under attack on a daily basis, their lives turned upside down,” he said. “Each and every child is scarred for life with horrific consequences on their health, well-being and future.”

UNICEF says the most vulnerable among the children are the 2.8 million in hard-to-reach locations including some 280,000 children who are living "completely cut-off" in areas subject to siege. Almost six million children now depend on humanitarian assistance in country and millions have been displaced - some as many as seven times, including the more than 2.3 million children who are now living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

The organisation says families are taking more extreme measures "just to survive" including pushing children into early marriage and labour. In more than two-thirds of households, children are working to support their families, some in extremely harsh conditions. 

Despite this, Mr Cappelaere says, "[w]e continue to witness the courage of Syria’s children". "Many have crossed frontlines just to sit for school exams. They insist on learning, including in underground schools. There is so much more we can and should do to turn the tide for Syria’s children."

UNICEF has reiterated calls for an immediate political solution to end the almost six year conflict to be found, an end to all grave violations against children, and the lifting of sieges and sustained access to all children in Syria.