At the mere age of seven, Ahmed is one of the youngest to take up arms in Syria’s brutal civil war.
As his right hand supports his AK47, cigarette smoke pouring out of his mouth, he stands before a makeshift rebel barricade in the city of Aleppo.
Photojournalist Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini captured the child on his camera whilst on his second trip to Syria since President Bashar al-Assad has come under intense pressure to step down.
Ahmed is the son of a Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter and helps operate a barricade built to protect rebels from snipers on the frontlines of the Salahadeen district.
Despite his tender age Ahmed, controversially, plays a role in the conflict in south-west Aleppo.
A child soldier?
According to the U.N.’s body for the international protection of children, UNICEF, the involvement of children under the age of 18 in hostilities is illegal.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, to which Syria became party in 2003, says that, “armed groups, distinct from the armed forces of a State, should not under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.”
UNICEF claims that children are more likely to become child soldiers if they are displaced from their homes, living in combat zones or have limited access to education.
The U.N. body continues on to say that it is most likely child soldiers who choose to join the fight are responding to economic, cultural, social and political pressures.
The phenomena is occurring throughout the country; international body Human Rights Watch interviewed several boys in Syria late last year who claim they were heavily involved in the fighting.
Majid, a 16-year-old from Homs, told them that he had participated in combat missions for the FSA.
“I used to carry a Kalashnikov…. I used to shoot checkpoints … to capture [them] and take the weapons.” Majid also stated that his battalion gave him combat training. “They taught us how to shoot, how to dismantle and put together a weapon, how to target.”
According to the interview, Majid volunteered of his own accord. Despite this admission, international law clearly states that the involvement of children in war is prohibited.
Under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute, it is a war crime for armed forces or groups to conscript or enlist children under 15, or to use them “to participate actively in hostilities.” This includes activities linked to combat such as sabotage or spying, and the use of children as decoys, couriers, or at military checkpoints.
The Photographer’s experience
Despite capturing some disturbing images and living in a war zone, Piccolomini reveres the time he spent in Syria.
“When you are on the front line, it’s very easy to bond with those around you,” New York-born Italian Piccolomini, 26, told The Times.
“They took me in as one of them ... I crawled, ducked, jumped, yelled and breathed everything they did, I saw them die … It has been a tough fight over there and it has been a tough one also for journalists; I lost a friend.”
The photographer’s remarkable images exhibit the ruins of Aleppo and capture the human aspect of the war.
His work has taken his on a wide range of international assignments, not least to conflict ravaged Syria.
Piccolomini explains his dangerous choice by citing Scottish philosopher David Hume’s provocative statement: “Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of passions.”