Syria crisis: A brush with the brutal world of child refugees
On a street in East Beirut, two small boys sit on the pavement, their heads between their knees, arms wrapped around their legs.
Around them, groups of people, laughing and raucous, spill out from the many bars, taking no notice of the now-common sight of Syrian child beggars.
Passing the two boys, I stopped to see if they were all right.
Only the younger of the two, Ahmed (not his real name), aged five, lifted his head. His six-year-old brother, however, was unresponsive and in need of help.
With a Red Cross unit just a 10-minute walk away, I decided to get the boy checked out. Seeing the child limp, a passer-by called an ambulance.
Ahmed told me his brother's name, and turning to the barely conscious youngster I called: "Mahmoud? Mahmoud? Can you hear me?" He moved slightly, his breathing shallow.
One bystander leant in, saying: "He just wants money, he's faking it," and then walked away.
A few people approached, some asking what was happening, lingering for a moment, before going on their way.
An ambulance arrived, and the paramedics began asking Ahmed questions about his brother, their voices competing with the noise of dance music blaring from passing cars.
The scene caught the fleeting attention of a few of the people on a night out just feet away, attracting little more than nonchalant glances.
With no way to contact his family, I took responsibility for the children.
Mahmoud was loaded into the ambulance. Ahmed sat next to me, sharing a seatbelt and clutching a blanket in one hand and my arm in the other.
"Where are you from?" I asked him.
"Aleppo," he quietly muttered.
"Where's your family?"
"In Beirut? Where in Beirut? "
"Airport, near the airport," he replied.
'Who will pay?'
We got to the hospital, only to find they wouldn't admit the child. "This is a private hospital," they said. Thinking it was a matter of money, I told them I would pay the bill, but they still said no.
With no choice but to move on, we went to a second hospital. The first question they asked was: "You are going to pay for the bill?" - less of a question and more a demand.
When I said yes, a nurse responded: "Are you sure? This can be expensive," implying that the cost might make me think twice about getting care for the child.
Ahmed was sat in a wheelchair, wearing my jacket for warmth. Doctors asked him questions about his family. All he knew was he lived near the airport and there was no phone number to call. He was, after all, only five years old.
He said he had 10 brothers and sisters. They begged too, but weren't in the same area.
He said there would be someone on the street corner in the morning who regularly collected them at the end of their shift.
He looked worried and asked when they could go - because if they weren't at the spot in the morning they'd be beaten.
'Not my problem'
Mahmoud was dehydrated, hadn't eaten and was severely sleep deprived. He was just six years old and, like his younger brother, worked on the streets all night.
The doctor told me the children could not stay in the hospital. He said unless they could find their legal guardian, the police would have to take them.
"And then what?" I ask.
The doctor replied in tone of both hopelessness and indignation: "I don't know, there's too many of them. There's no room. Shelters are full. Did you hear how many brothers and sisters he has? Ten!
"There are 10 of them. We have over a million refugees here, and they keep coming. What can we do? This is not my problem."
At that moment the police arrived. Ahmed gripped my arm, hiding behind me while I talked to the two officers.
Mahmoud was awake, screaming and crying, begging to be let go, restrained by the doctors.
I asked where they were taking the children, only to be told they would be taken to jail.
The doctors tried to get Mahmoud to wash his hands before leaving, but the boy shrieked, kicking furiously away from the sink.
He screamed that if his hands were clean he wouldn't look like a beggar and the ringleader would punish him.
A policeman held him down and started to put handcuffs on his tiny wrists.
I asked the officer to stop and Mahmoud thrashed out at this brief moment of freedom. The officer responded by striking the child.
Shocked, I tried to calm the situation, getting between Mahmoud and the policeman.
Mahmoud was let go and bolted for the front door. An officer grabbed one of his legs, bringing the boy down and dragging him back. It seemed they had forgotten Mahmoud was a child.
I crouched down to try to comfort the small boy, repeating the same empty reassurance that everything would be all right.
His little hands gripped my arm and we started walking out.
Both boys were crying as they were put in the back of the police car. I put my hand on Ahmed's shoulder, telling another lie that it would all be fine, and that he and his brother needed to look after each other.
I cannot be sure where they are now. Perhaps they are back with their family. Maybe whoever runs their begging ring is used to children dropping from exhaustion and ending up in jail. Or maybe they're still sitting in that cell.
It is possible they have been taken to a children's home where they will at least have a roof over their heads, meals and education.
But I fear that's too optimistic, and the likelihood is I'll be seeing them again soon on the streets of Beirut.