In an underground basement in Arbin, a rebel-held neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, the laughter of children can be heard, echoing up to a world that has been dominated by destruction and war for more than five years.
Welcome to Childhood Land, a makeshift playground where children can play dress up, ride swings and board a small merry-go-round.
Built more than 18 months ago by volunteers, the small-scale, underground amusement park offers a much-needed respite for children caught in the crossfire of the ongoing conflict. “So many children have suffered because of the Syrian crisis, there’s been so many psychological troubles,” says Mohammed Badra, an EPA photographer. “The park’s architect, Yassen, said that since we can’t give children candy and food, we gave them some happiness.”
Badra stumbled on Childhood Land when he was working for the Syrian Red Crescent as a first-aid volunteer. “I know [of] many places like this one built for the children,” he tells TIME. “I can say that no child in Syria has not been affected by the crisis. I think [this park] is very important for them. I consider it a hospital for children’s spirit.” And it’s also helping parents. “Fathers see their children laughing more. That’s a very important thing in their lives.”
For Badra, the focus on Childhood Land is also part of a shift in his own approach to covering the conflict, a change he’s embarked upon under the mentorship of his editor at EPA, Oliver Weiken. “I really want to make new pictures about Syrian daily life,” he says. “Lives here are not just about the injured. After several massacres that happened here, I think a picture of a child laughing or smiling is a great picture to see. It’s a very valuable thing.”
Mohammed Badra is a Syrian photographer based in Douma. He is represented by EPA.
Andrew Katz is TIME’s International Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.