The underground wonderland where Syrian children get to play

On 17 September 2016, Abdulaziz, 10, who lost his father during the war comes to the 'Land of Childhood' underground ...
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

On 17 September 2016, Abdulaziz, 10, who lost his father during the war comes to the 'Land of Childhood' underground playground to play and spend time with his friends.

It is an underground wonderland that offers children a reminder of how magical childhood can be. In reality, it's a series of rooms connected by a corridor scratched into the earth: a safe haven for children who live every day with the threat of death and destruction.

Over more than two years, a group of young volunteers in East Aleppo has carved out a tunnel between two basements to create the Land of Childhood, a place where children can play without fear of attack.

"My mum doesn't allow me to play in the street … but when she learnt that this place is underground, she lets me come here to play" says ten-year-old Adbulaziz, who lost his father in the war.

Two girls play at the 'Land of Childhood' underground playground. "My friends and I come here because it's the last ...
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

Two girls play at the 'Land of Childhood' underground playground. "My friends and I come here because it's the last theme park that is still working.

"It's the last park that is still working … the one we used to go to was attacked and is not working anymore," says another child.

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Children wait in line to buy some candy at the 'Land of Childhood,' an underground playground in a besieged town in the ...
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

Children wait in line to buy some candy at the 'Land of Childhood,' an underground playground in a besieged town in the Syrian Arab Republic.

Up to four hundred children a day have been flocking to the playground. One of the creators, Yaseen, was a fourth year architecture student until the siege forced him to abandon his studies.

"Designing this project was a relief from the war photojournalism I did during the war. I wanted to retrieve my old skills as an architect to produce something that brings happiness to children," he says.

"More than 69 children have lost their lives just for going to school this year,"  says Unicef emergency communication specialist Toby Fricker, "so just playing on the street can be a matter of life or death."

Two children look through a show window inside the tunnel that provides a safe passage for children between the two ...
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

Two children look through a show window inside the tunnel that provides a safe passage for children between the two basements.

In eastern Aleppo alone, UNICEF estimates that 100,000 children are living under siege. Some communities have received little to no aid in nearly two years.

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Across Syria, almost half a million children are almost completely cut off from humanitarian aid and basic services.

"For millions of human beings in Syria, life has become an endless nightmare – in particular for the hundreds of thousands of children living under siege. Children are being killed and injured, too afraid to go to school or even play, surviving with little food and hardly any medicine," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake.

Children play on the train and in the plastic house at the 'Land of Childhood'.
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

Children play on the train and in the plastic house at the 'Land of Childhood'.

"This is no way to live – and too many are dying."

There has been an escalation in violence in Aleppo and across the country over the past three weeks. In the last 48 hours around 10,000 people have fled east Aleppo as the Syrian army advances on the city.

But children still want to have fun, even if it's in a city under siege, and one being bombarded on a daily basis.

Children on the ride of a Ferris wheel at the 'Land of Childhood'.
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

Children on the ride of a Ferris wheel at the 'Land of Childhood'.

"I played on most of the games available here," says Massa, who came from a nearby town to play at the playground. "I wasn't afraid of the bombardment because my Dad told me that we're in the basement."

As children wait in line for candy floss, another six million wait for humanitarian assistance, uncertain of when they'll be able to play safely outside, let alone when the war will end, and when their childhood can resume.  

Land of Childhood is that rarest of things in Syria - a safe place.

A child plays in the ball court at the 'Land of Childhood'.
ALSHAMI/UNICEF

A child plays in the ball court at the 'Land of Childhood'.

"Many parents and teachers will do whatever they can to provide some form of a normal life for their children." says Fricker.

"For children in some of the worst affected areas, particularly those in besieged locations, they will do whatever is necessary to have some respite from the horrors around them, even if that means playing underground."

This article was supplied as part of Stuff's partnership with Unicef NZUNICEF stands up for every child so they can have a childhood. Find out more at unicef.org.nz

Help children in Syria keep warm this winter: Just $20 will provide three thermal blankets. Please give generously today.

 - Stuff

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