On a cold winter night, Syrian Ibrahim Othman went out to pray and came home cradling a baby girl, abandoned outside the door of the village mosque just hours after she was born.
“I brought her home and said to my wife, ‘I brought you a present’,” said the 59-year-old resident of Hazano, in northwestern Syria held by the rebels.
He named the baby Hibatullah, which means “gift from God”, and decided to raise him as a member of the family.
Officials say babies are being left outside mosques, hospitals and even under olive trees in war-torn Syria, as more than 12 years of bitter conflict fuels poverty and despair.
‘Only a few cases of child abandonment’ were officially documented before war broke out in 2011, according to the Washington-based Syrian group for Truth and Justice, which tracks human rights abuses in the country .
But between early 2021 and late 2022, more than 100 children, including 62 girls, were found abandoned across the country, he said in a March report, estimating the true figure was much higher.
“Numbers have increased dramatically” since the start of the conflict, as well as “the social and economic repercussions of the war” affecting government-held and rebel-held areas, the group said.
He highlighted factors such as poverty, instability, insecurity and child marriage, as well as sexual abuse and pregnancies outside of marriage.
While adoption is not allowed in Syria, Othman asked local authorities for permission to raise Hibatullah.
The three-year-old, her hair pulled back in pigtails and tottering in shiny pink sandals, now calls him “grandpa”.
“I told my children that if I died she should have part of my inheritance,” even though she could never officially become part of the family, he said, breaking down in tears.
“She’s just an innocent child,” Othman said.
The war in Syria has killed more than 500,000 people, displaced millions and ravaged the country’s infrastructure.
Health department official Zaher Hajjo said 53 abandoned newborn babies were registered in government-controlled areas in the first 10 months of last year – 28 boys and 25 girls.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this year issued a decree creating dedicated facilities for children, who would automatically be registered as Arabs, Syrians and Muslims, with birthplace as the location where they were found.
In the rebel-held province of Idlib, social workers at the main center for abandoned children cared for small babies swaddled in blankets in simple cradles, some accented with purple paint or ribbons.
In the bare-walled bedroom with brown and beige carpet, a woman rocks a baby to sleep with one hand while feeding another milk with the other.
Faisal al-Hammoud, program manager at the centre, said a little girl they had taken in was found under an olive tree after being mauled by a cat.
“Blood ran down her face,” he said, adding that the orphanage had since placed her in the care of a family.
Workers are following up to ensure that these babies are well taken care of and “that there is no child trafficking”, al-Hammoud added.
The center has taken in 26 babies – 14 girls and 12 boys – since it opened in 2019, and nine this year alone, said Abdullah Abdullah, civil affairs officer with the rebel authorities in Idlib.
More than four million people live in areas controlled by armed fighters in northern and northwestern Syria, 90% of whom depend on aid to survive.
“These children are victims,” Abdullah said.