A generation ‘traumatized’ in Syria, expert witnesses say

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Women and children are suffering the worst horrors in Syria, with many subjected to rape and sexual violence in a war that has traumatized a generation of young people, U.S. lawmakers heard Tuesday.

Women and children make up around three-quarters of the four million people who have fled either across the border or within Syria, top U.S. and U.N. officials told a subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations committee.

Now there are growing reports of rapes in refugee camps, and of young girls being sold off into forced marriages or prostitution as families disintegrate and struggle to survive in face of the brutal conflict.

“It is hard to truly capture the horror of going to the camps and being shown pictures by a woman of her dead children on her cell phone in this very tragic twist on technology,” assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development Nancy Lindborg told the lawmakers.

“We have a generation that is now touched and traumatized by the conflict.”

U.S. aid was helping to support some 144 hospitals and mobile clinics inside Syria, and staff had brought stocks of rape kits and trained health care professionals in rape counseling, she said.

Lindborg admitted that while the goal was to stop the rapes, “at this point inside Syria, given the conflict, we're better able to do the treatment.”

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned the situation was likely to worsen as aid agencies and host nations buckle under the strain of caring for a tide of refugees.

One in five refugees was under the age of four, he said, adding he could not shake off memories of “visiting schools and looking at the drawings. All the drawings are planes bombarding villages or people being killed by other people.”

Jordan, which is already battling an economic crisis, has taken in some 356,000 Syrian refugees since the March 2010 start of the battle to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

As many as 1.15 million people have now fled across Syria's borders, and the desperate flow is becoming a flood as the conflict enters a third year.

Guterres praised regional countries for sheltering so many and described the “heroic” Jordanian border guards who spot the incoming refugees -- some 2,000 to 3,000 a night -- with night-vision goggles and help them to safety.

And he predicted that if the situation on the ground does not change, Syria's immediate neighbors, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey could each be hosting a million refugees by the end of 2013.

This will have “an unimaginable impact in the economy, the society and the security of these countries,” he warned.

Lindborg said the $385 million in humanitarian aid provided by America to date had been “a lifeline to more than 2.4 million people inside Syria.”

American aid has reached all 14 provinces in Syria, and about 50 percent was reaching the opposition in battleground areas.

“We know it's not enough, but we are working to ensure that it reaches as broad a swath of those in need. It is being put to work on the ground every day in some of the areas affected by the worst violence,” she said.