Years late, Syria’s children of war learn to read and write in school

Students sit in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – – Hussein al-Khalaf, aged 13, burst into tears as he sat in his classroom at the Ahmed Baheddine Rajab school near Damascus, recounting why he is learning to read and write for the first time in his life.

He was five years old when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, shattering his life and that of his family in the city of Albu Kamal, which soon became a bastion for Islamic State.

Khalaf is one of thousands of Syrian children in a UNICEF emergency education program for those born during the war and who haven’t been able to attend school. Their school runs two shifts a day to allow as many children as possible to catch up with other kids.

“My parents said I should be in grade 1 but I wanted to be in grade 5 so that other children here won’t ridicule me. They mock me because I’m in grade 1 but I don’t respond”, said Khalaf, who fled with his family to Sahnaya near Damascus last year.

“I haven’t been to school since I was born. Daesh wanted to take us to join them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“My friends all left, we all got separated. I found a phone number for one of my friends and called him. He told me ‘your friend Majed died’,” said a tearful Khalaf.

“Majed used to play with us. We were all together and living happily before Daesh came in. I want nothing. I just want to see my friends again.”

 

VICTIMS

Besides the fear that Islamic State would indoctrinate their children or take them as fighters, many parents did not send their children away because they might still be exposed to heavy bombing by Syrian and Russian planes.

Most children at the Rajab school were from the war-torn areas of Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Idlib and Albu Kamal. They were all displaced during fierce fighting.

These children are among the principal victims of the war, now entering its eighth year. The trauma of what they have been through is visible on their faces, in their uneasy silences, sad eyes or tearful outbreaks.

They have paid a high price in a conflict beyond their understanding. Their lives have been broken with grief, their families displaced and dispersed, and they have been robbed of an education and a future.

In Syria, an estimated 7.5 million children are growing up knowing nothing but war, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

 

WAR AND DESTRUCTION

“All that was there was war and destruction,” said Saleh al-Salehi, 12, who fled eastern Aleppo, a rebel bastion subjected to massive bombardment.

“My brother was killed. They dropped barrel bombs on us and fired rockets,” said Salehi, adding that it felt strange to be going to school for the first time in his life.

The school itself bears the scars of war. Classrooms are freezing cold and heating is a luxury, with fuel available only at sky-high prices.

The desks and benches are decrepit. Nothing of what is now common in modern schools, from laptops to digital activity centres, a library or cafeteria, was to be seen.

Even the headmaster was rushing out to a second job to make some more money to support his family. After 25 years, one teacher said her monthly salary was $80 and this had not increased in seven years.

Many kids look malnourished with black circles under their eyes, tattered clothes and torn shoes not warm enough to withstand the bitter cold.

 

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018.

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

EMBARRASSED

While most said they were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with other children, they felt embarrassed and uneasy about their age and new environment.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar Badawi, 12, said: “I was dreaming about school. I haven’t been to school at all. A rocket fell on the school in our neighborhood and destroyed it. I want to catch up with the other kids of my age.”

Aya Ahmed, 13, from eastern Ghouta, a fought-over suburb of Damascus, said she was terrified of coming to school because she knew nobody and had no friends.

“In Ghouta I had friends but we couldn’t play. I didn’t know how to read and write.”

“I feel embarrassed when people ask me what grade I am. They look at me and say, all this height and you’re in grade 1. I was very late to get into school but I want to study and become an important person. I want to be a lawyer.”

The headmaster, Thaer Nasr al-Ali, said: “The conflict has affected all the people but the children paid a big price. They were deprived of education and were psychologically hurt. The schools were shut, they were cut off from education.”

“We had severe cases of trauma among the children because of the war and the violence they witnessed. Many kids lost parents and relatives and saw horror and death in front of their eyes.”

As well as losing out on education, many kids had to work to help their families or were recruited by militias and fighters, Ali and U.N. officials said.

CATCHING UP

UNICEF set up an emergency plan for accelerated learning in coordination with the education ministry so that students can catch up with other children.

The plan compresses one year into two and runs two shifts a day. There are 64 teachers for each shift and each class has 40-50 students. The school has 1,750 students, double the number before the war.

Syria had 20,000 schools before the war but only 11,000 are functioning; the rest are destroyed, semi–destroyed or being used by the armed forces or militia groups, UNICEF said.

In seven years of civil war, marked by sieges and starvation and the death of 400,000 people, half the 23 million population has been displaced or forced into exile. One third of the country has been internally displaced.

According to UNICEF there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children living outside the country and 2.6 million internally displaced. The long term-impact on these children is huge.

“The drama of the Syrians is not finished. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the impact will be felt for generations,” said one relief official in Damascus, who declined to be named.

(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Giles Elgood)

60,000 North Korean children may starve, sanctions slow aid: UNICEF

A North Korean flag flies on a mast at the Permanent Mission of North Korea in Geneva October 2, 2014.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – An estimated 60,000 children face potential starvation in North Korea, where international sanctions are exacerbating the situation by slowing aid deliveries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Tuesday.

World powers have imposed growing sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Last week the United States announced fresh sanctions on nine entities, 16 people and six North Korean ships it accused of helping the weapons programs.

Under United Nations Security Council resolutions, humanitarian supplies or operations are exempt from sanctions, Omar Abdi, UNICEF deputy executive director, said.

“But what happens is that of course the banks, the companies that provide goods or ship goods are very careful. They don’t want to take any risk of later on being associated (with) breaking the sanctions,” Abdi told a news briefing.

“That is what makes it more difficult for us to bring things. So it takes a little bit longer, especially in getting money into the country. But also in shipping goods to DPRK. There are not many shipping lines that operate in that area,” he said, referring to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Sanctions on fuel have been tightened, making it more scarce and expensive, Abdi added.

Reuters, citing three Western European intelligence sources, reported exclusively last week that North Korea shipped coal to Russia last year which was then delivered to South Korea and Japan in a likely violation of U.N. sanctions.

“We are projecting that at some point during the year 60,000 children will become severely malnourished. This is the malnutrition that potentially can lead to death. It’s protein and calorie malnutrition,” said Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF emergency programs worldwide.

“So the trend is worrying, it’s not getting any better.”

In all, 200,000 North Korean children suffer from acute malnutrition, including 60,000 with the most severe form that can be lethal, according to UNICEF.

UNICEF had projected 60,000 children would suffer severe acute malnutrition last year, and reached 39,000 of them with therapeutic feeding, spokesman Christophe Boulierac said.

“Diarrhoea related to poor sanitation and hygiene and acute malnutrition remains a leading cause of death among young children,” it said in Tuesday’s appeal to donors that gave no toll.

UNICEF is seeking $16.5 million this year to provide nutrition, health and water to North Koreans but faces “operational challenges” due to the tense political context and “unintended consequences” of sanctions, it said.

It cited “disruptions to banking channels, delays in clearing relief items at entry ports, difficulty securing suppliers and a 160 percent increase in fuel prices”.

“It’s a very close, and tightly monitored intervention which is purely humanitarian in its essence,” Fontaine said.

UNICEF is one of only a few aid agencies with access to the isolated country, which suffered famine in the mid-1990s that killed up to three million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Peter Graff)

Boy’s death shows danger for besieged Syrians seeking food

Heba Amouri, mourns as she holds the body of her two-year-old son, Emir al-Bash at a medical center in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria January 8, 2018.

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two-year-old Emir al-Bash’s blood still showed on his mother’s hand as she sat in a medical center in Syria’s besieged eastern Ghouta where his body was taken after he died from a shellblast.

His family had left their home in the village of Kafr Batna on Monday for a market in a nearby village, seeking food for their malnourished children, but a mortar shell landed close to them, instantly killing the boy.

“My child died hungry. We wanted to feed him. He was crying from hunger when we left the house,” said the mother, Heba Amouri. Emir is the second child she has lost since the war began six years ago.

Eastern Ghouta is the last big stronghold of rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad near the capital Damascus and has been besieged for years.

The United Nations estimates it is home to 400,000 civilians and says food and medical supplies have run low. The army and its allies – Russia and Iran-backed militias – bombard it daily. Rebels there shell government-held Damascus.

After Emir’s death, Amouri tried to quiet her surviving baby, a hungry two-month-old girl, by placing her finger in her mouth at the medical center. Malnutrition means she is unable to breastfeed, she said.

On Saturday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was alarmed by the ongoing violence in eastern Ghouta and the growing number of civilian casualties and displacement since the start of the year.

“Now I lost my second child. My baby daughter is the only surviving child,” Mahmoud al-Bash, 27, Emir’s father said. A year ago, the family lost another son to the bombardment.

The United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said in November that 11.9 percent of children under five in eastern Ghouta suffered acute malnourishment.

Mothers of infants had reduced breastfeeding or stopped it altogether because of their own poor nutrition, it said.

On Monday evening, Emir’s father carried Emir’s tiny body wrapped in bright white cloth, marked with a big blood stain, to the village’s cemetery.

“May God protect the children, and everyone, and take the life of Bashar (al-Assad),” he said, fixing his eyes on his child as he bid him a last farewell.

(Writing by Beirut bureau; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

Yemen set to run out of fuel and vaccine in a month: UNICEF

A boy is being treated at a malnutrition treatment center in Sanaa, Yemen November 4, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – Yemen’s stocks of fuel and vaccines will run out in a month unless a Saudi-led military coalition allows aid into the blockaded port of Hodeidah and Sanaa airport, UNICEF’s representative in the country said on Friday.

Meritxell Relano, speaking by phone to reporters in Geneva, said fuel prices had risen 60 percent and there were urgent concerns about a diphtheria outbreak, as well as food shortages because of the port closure.

“The situation that was already catastrophic is just getting worse,” she said. “The impact of this is unimaginable in terms of health and diseases.”

After two years of civil war, Yemen has 7 million people on the brink of famine and has had 900,000 suspected cholera cases in the past six months.

The number of new cases has fallen consistently for the past eight weeks, according to data from the World Health Organization.

But progress against cholera, which has killed 2,196 people, could be reversed by the blockade, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told a regular U.N. briefing in Geneva.

“If the closure is not stopped in the coming days, we may see that the progress is stopped,” Chaib said. “We can see even more cases and more deaths as a result of not being able to get access to people.”

The closure of Hodeidah port prevented a ship setting sail from Djibouti with 250 tonnes of WHO medical supplies on Wednesday. Trauma kits in particular are running short.

“If the hostilities continue and the ports remain closed, we will not be able to perform life-saving surgeries or provide basic healthcare,” Chaib said.

 

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Andrew Roche)

 

Convoy rolls into Damascus suburbs with aid for 40,000

Smoke rises at a damaged site in Ain Tarma, eastern Damascus suburb of Ghouta, Syria, September 14, 2017.

GENEVA (Reuters) – A convoy from the United Nations and Syrian Arab Red Crescent entered towns in the besieged Damascus suburb of eastern Ghouta on Monday, bringing aid to 40,000 people for the first time since June 2016, the United Nations said.

A tightening siege by government forces has pushed people to the verge of famine in the eastern suburbs, residents and aid workers said last week, bringing desperation to the only major rebel enclave near the Syrian capital.

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Twitter they had entered the towns of Kafra Batna and Saqba.

The Syrian Arab Red Crescent said in a separate tweet that the inter-agency convoy had 49 trucks.

They carried food, nutrition and health items for 40,000 people in need, OCHA spokesman Jens Laerke said. “The last time we reached these two locations were in June 2016,” he said.

A health worker in Saqba who was present when the convoy started to offload said that nine trucks of foodstuffs, including milk and peanut butter, and four trucks of medicines had arrived so far.

Technical specialists were on board to assess needs in the towns in order to plan a further humanitarian response, he said.

“More aid to complement today’s delivery is planned in the coming days,” Laerke added.

At least 1,200 children in eastern Ghouta suffer from malnutrition, with 1,500 others at risk, a spokeswoman for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF said last week.

Bettina Luescher, spokeswoman of the U.N. World Food Programme (WFP), said the convoy carried nutrition supplies for 16,000 children.

Food, fuel and medicine once travelled across frontlines into the suburbs through a network of underground tunnels. But early this year, an army offensive nearby cut smuggling routes that provided a lifeline for around 300,000 people in the enclave east of the capital.

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Alison Williams and Peter Graff)

 

Myanmar gives green light to resume food aid to Rakhine, says U.N.

Myanmar gives green light to resume food aid to Rakhine, says U.N.

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Myanmar authorities have agreed to allow the United Nations to resume distribution of food in northern Rakhine state which was suspended for two months, the World Food Programme (WFP) said on Friday.

The agreement, whose details are still being worked out, came as UNICEF reported that Rohingya refugee children fleeing into Bangladesh were arriving “close to death” from malnutrition.

The WFP was previously distributing food rations to 110,000 people in northern Rakhine state – to both Buddhist and the minority Muslim Rohingya communities.

Rohingya insurgent attacks on police stations triggered an army crackdown, that the United Nations has called “ethnic cleansing”, and U.N. humanitarian agencies have not been able to access northern Rakhine to deliver aid since then. WFP deliveries have continued to 140,000 people in central Rakhine.

“WFP has been given the green light to resume food assistance operations in northern part of Rakhine. We are working with the government to coordinate the details,” WFP spokeswoman Bettina Luescher told journalists in Geneva.

She had no timeline or details on the proposed distribution of rations to northern Rakhine, and said it was still being discussed with the authorities in Myanmar.

“We just have to see what the situation on the ground is. It’s very hard to say these things if you can’t get in,” Luescher said.

Some 604,000 Rohingya refugees have fled to Bangladesh in the past two months, bringing the total to 817,000, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said.

Malnutrition rates in Maungdaw and Buthidaung townships in Rakhine, where the vast majority of the Rohingya refugees originate, were already above emergency threshold rates before the crisis, the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.

“Since August 25, we have had to stop treating 4,000 children with severe acute malnutrition in northern Rakhine because we have had no access,” UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told the briefing.

UNICEF has screened nearly 60,000 Rohingya refugee children arriving in Bangladesh, nearly 2,000 of whom have been identified as having severe acute malnutrition, with another 7,000 moderately acutely malnourished, she said.

The agency screened 340 children among recent arrivals, a “rough and rapid exercise” that found 10 percent to be severely acutely malnourished, she said.

“This is an extremely small number of children so these numbers are not representative,” Mercado said.

“But what they do tell us is that some of the children are close to death by the time they make it across the border.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay,; editing by Tom Miles and Richard Balmforth)

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh in dire state: UNICEF

Rohingya refugee children in Bangladesh in dire state: UNICEF

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Nearly 340,000 Rohingya children are living in squalid conditions in Bangladesh camps where they lack enough food, clean water and health care, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said on Friday.

Up to 12,000 more children join them every week, fleeing violence or hunger in Myanmar, often still traumatized by atrocities they witnessed, it said in a report “Outcast and Desperate”.

In all, almost 600,000 Rohingya refugees have left northern Rakhine state since Aug. 25 when the U.N. says the Myanmar army began a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” following insurgent attacks.

“This isn’t going to be a short-term, it isn’t going to end anytime soon,” Simon Ingram, the report’s author and a UNICEF official, told a news briefing.

“So it is absolutely critical that the borders remain open and that protection for children is given and equally that children born in Bangladesh have their birth registered.”

Most Rohingya are stateless in Myanmar and many fled without papers, he said, adding of the newborns in Bangladesh: “Without an identity they have no chance of ever assimilating into any society effectively.”

Safe drinking water and toilets are in “desperately short supply” in the chaotic, teeming camps and settlements, Ingram said after spending two weeks in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

“In a sense it’s no surprise that they must truly see this place as a hell on earth,” he said.

One in five Rohingya children under the age of five is estimated to be acutely malnourished, requiring medical attention, he said.

“There is a very, very severe risk of outbreaks of water-borne diseases, diarrhea and quite conceivably cholera in the longer-term,” he added.

UNICEF is providing clean water and toilets, and has helped vaccinate children against measles and cholera, which can be deadly, he said.

The agency is seeking $76 million under a $434 million U.N. appeal for Rohingya refugees for six months, but is only 7 percent funded, he said, speaking ahead of a pledging conference in Geneva on Monday.

U.N. agencies are still demanding access to northern Rakhine, where an unknown number of Rohingya remain despite U.N. reports that many villages and food stocks have been burned.

“We repeat the call for the need for protection of all children in Rakhine state, this is an absolute fundamental requirement. The atrocities against children and civilians must end,” Ingram said.

“We just must keep putting it on the record, we cannot keep silent.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Pritha Sarkar)

More than half of schools in Boko Haram’s region are shut, UNICEF says

ABUJA (Reuters) – More than half the schools in the state at the epicenter of Nigeria’s conflict with Boko Haram are still closed, the United Nations’ children agency said on Friday, as the insurgency drags into its ninth year.

The lack of schools could continue to fuel Boko Haram or similar movements in the future. Poor education for Nigeria’s restive northeastern youth left them with few prospects, driving them to join the Islamist insurgency, experts say.

The conflict has killed more than 20,000 people since 2009 and embroiled the region in one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises, with at least 10.7 million people in need of assistance, according to the United Nations.

“In addition to devastating malnutrition, violence and an outbreak of cholera, the attacks on schools is in danger of creating a lost generation of children, threatening their and the countries future,” Justin Forsyth, a deputy director for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said in a statement.

Over 57 percent of schools are shut in Borno state, where most of the conflict and resulting crisis have taken place, as the new school year begins, the statement said. More than 2,295 teachers have been killed, at least 19,000 displaced and almost 1,400 schools destroyed, UNICEF said.

Despite aid agencies’ efforts to set up schools for children in the northeast, particularly those displaced by the insurgency, UNICEF said it has only received three-fifths of the total funding it needs for 2017.

Combined with climate change taking its toll in recent years on farming, a mainstay of the region, the lack of schooling has left many without job opportunities.

Nigeria’s northeast has been plagued by poor education for decades.

British colonialization in the 19th and first half of the 20th century ushered in priests who set up schools in the country’s south, which came to be religiously dominated by Christianity.

The partly autonomous northern regions, governed by Muslim rulers under Britain, saw fewer similar attempts, and, by 1950, northern Nigeria had produced one university graduate.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten, editing by Larry King)

South Korea approves aid to North Korea, North calls Trump ‘barking dog’

By Christine Kim

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korea approved a plan on Thursday to send $8 million worth of aid to North Korea, as China warned the crisis on the Korean peninsula was getting more serious by the day and the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington continued.

North Korea’s foreign minister likened U.S. President Donald Trump to a “barking dog” on Thursday, after Trump warned he would “totally destroy” the North if it threatened the United States and its allies.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the situation on the Korean peninsula was getting more serious by the day and could not be allowed to spin out of control.

“We call on all parties to be calmer than calm and not let the situation escalate out of control,” Wang said, according to a report from the state-run China News Service on Thursday.

Meeting separately with his South Korean counterpart, Kang Kyung-wha, Wang reiterated a call for South Korea to remove the U.S.-built THAAD anti-missile system, which China says is a threat to its own security.

“China hopes South Korea will make efforts to reduce tension,” a report on China’s official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang as saying.

The decision to send aid to North Korea was not popular in South Korea, hitting President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating. It also raised concerns in Japan and the United States, and followed new U.N. sanctions against North Korea over its sixth nuclear test earlier this month.

The South’s Unification Ministry said its aid policy remained unaffected by geopolitical tensions with the North. The exact timing of when the aid would be sent, as well as its size, would be confirmed later, the ministry said in a statement.

The South said it aimed to send $4.5 million worth of nutritional products for children and pregnant women through the World Food Programme and $3.5 million worth of vaccines and medicinal treatments through UNICEF.

“We have consistently said we would pursue humanitarian aid for North Korea in consideration of the poor conditions children and pregnant women are in there, apart from political issues,” said Unification Minister Cho Myong-gyon.

UNICEF’s regional director for East Asia and the Pacific Karin Hulshof said in a statement before the decision the problems North Korean children face “are all too real”.

“Today, we estimate that around 200,000 children are affected by acute malnutrition, heightening their risk of death and increasing rates of stunting,” Hulshof said.

“Food and essential medicines and equipment to treat young children are in short supply,” she said.

The last time the South had sent aid to the North was in December 2015 through the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) under ex-president Park Geun-hye.

 

DOG BARKING

South Korea’s efforts aimed at fresh aid for North Korea dragged down Moon’s approval rating. Realmeter, a South Korean polling organization, said on Thursday Moon’s approval rating stood at 65.7 percent, weakening for a fourth straight month.

Although the approval rate is still high, those surveyed said Moon had fallen out of favor due to North Korea’s continued provocations and the government’s decision to consider sending aid to North Korea, Realmeter said.

Moon will meet Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump later on Thursday on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, where North Korea was expected to be the core agenda item.

In an address on Tuesday, Trump escalated his standoff with North Korea over its nuclear challenge, threatening to “totally destroy” the country of 26 million people if the North threatened the United States and its allies.

Trump also mocked its leader, Kim Jong Un, calling him a “rocket man”.

North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho called Trump’s comments “the sound of a dog barking”.

“There is a saying that goes: ‘Even when dogs bark, the parade goes on’,” Ri said in televised remarks to reporters in front of a hotel near the U.N. headquarters in New York.

“If (Trump) was thinking about surprising us with dog-barking sounds then he is clearly dreaming,” he said.

Asked by reporters what he thought of Trump calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un “rocket man”, Ri quipped: “I feel sorry for his aides.”

North Korea conducted its sixth and largest nuclear test on Sept. 3 and has launched numerous missiles this year, including two intercontinental ballistic missiles and two other rockets that flew over Japan.

Such provocations have sparked strong disapproval from the international community, especially from the United States and Japan.

 

(Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Editing by Michael Perry and Paul Tait)

 

Boko Haram Nigerian child bombings this year are quadruple 2016’s: UNICEF

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

By Stephanie Nebehay and Alexis Akwagyiram

GENEVA/LAGOS (Reuters) – Boko Haram militants in northeast Nigeria have sent out four times as many child suicide bombers this year as they used in all of 2016, the United Nations Children’s Fund said on Tuesday.

Eighty-three children had been used as bombers since Jan. 1, 2017, UNICEF said. Of those, 55 were girls, mostly under 15 years old and 27 were boys. One was a baby strapped to a girl. Nineteen children were used last year, UNICEF said.

The Boko Haram insurgency, now in its eighth year, has claimed over 20,000 lives and forced more than two million people to flee their homes over eight years.

The frequency of suicide bomb attacks in northeastern Nigeria has increased in the past few weeks, killing at least 170 people since June 1, according to a Reuters tally.

UNICEF, in a statement released on Tuesday, said it was “extremely concerned about an appalling increase in the cruel and calculated use of children, especially girls, as ‘human bombs’ in northeast Nigeria. The use of children in this way is an atrocity”.

Boko Haram is trying to create an Islamic state in the Lake Chad region, which spans parts of Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad. It gained notoriety by abducting more than 200 girls from the northeast Nigerian town of Chibok in April 2014. Aid groups say it has kidnapped thousands more adults and children.

Children who escape are often held by authorities or ostracized by their communities and families. Nigerian aid worker Rebecca Dali, who runs an agency that offers counseling for those who were abducted, said children as young as four were among the 209 escapees her organization had helped since 2015.

“They (former abductees) are highly traumatized,” Dali told Reuters on Monday at the United Nations in Geneva, where she received an award from the Sergio Vieira de Mello Foundation for her humanitarian work.

Her team, which includes former police officers, identified some returnees as having been trained as suicide bombers.

“There were two girls taught by Boko Haram to be suicide bombers … The girls confirmed that they were taught that their life was not worth living, that if they die detonating the bomb and killing a lot of people, then their lives will be profitable,” Dali said.

Some 450,000 children are also at risk of life-threatening malnutrition in 2017 by the end of the year in northeast Nigeria, UNICEF said.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said on Monday the country would “reinforce and reinvigorate” its fight against the group following the latest wave of attacks.

Analysts say the Boko Haram faction led by Abubakar Shekau may have been paid ransom by the government to gain the release of 82 of the Chibok girls in May, which then was used to buy weapons and recruit fighters. The government did not disclose details of the negotiations.

(Additional reporting by Kieran Guilbert in Dakar)