Attacks on schools aim to ‘destroy Syria’s identity’

Teachers and aid organisations believe the attacks on schools are deliberate.

'It was a calculated assault, to strike fear in the hearts of the children and the parents' [Courtesy of Idlib Civil Defence Force/Al Jazeera]
'It was a calculated assault, to strike fear in the hearts of the children and the parents' [Courtesy of Idlib Civil Defence Force/Al Jazeera]

Beirut – Wafa Mohammed Ali Zeidan, 35, was in the third-grade classroom when she heard the plane’s first, terrifying rumble. Without a second thought, Zeidan, an English teacher, rushed to the door, panicking some of the girls in her class.

Other pupils laughed, shouting: “Miss, are you scared of the aeroplane!”

She went back to her desk, ashamed of frightening the children, and disrupting her own lesson.

And then they heard the first explosion. 

“A girl grabbed hold of my clothes, trembling and crying,” said Zeidan. “Then we heard the awful sound of the second aeroplane. We lost control of the students as they started to panic and run.”

Zeidan lost four of her colleagues in a brutal aerial bombardment on the main Kamal school complex in the northern Syrian town of Haas in late October.

Seventeen schoolchildren and 15 town residents were also killed, a White Helmets civil defence force spokesperson told Al Jazeera.

Zeidan lost four of her colleagues in an aerial bombardment on the main school complex in the northern Syrian town of Haas in late October [Courtesy of Idlib Civil Defence Force /Al Jazeera]

The children’s charity UNICEF said the attack, on rebel-held Idlib province, was among the worst on education establishments since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. If deliberate, it was a war crime, it added.

Our children hate to hear the word 'school'. Even I have become afraid of going to school. I hate the sight of books or bags - they have become frightening memories.

Wafa Mohammed Ali Zeidan, Syrian teacher

A teacher for 13 years, Zeidan had witnessed previous aerial bombardments in the course of Syria’s five-year war. But never had she seen anything like the destruction wrought that October morning. “It was a calculated assault to strike fear in the hearts of the children and the parents,” she told Al Jazeera.

Haas would not be the last attack on schools in Syria. The next day, on October 27, three children were killed by rebel shells that hit a school in government-held west Aleppo.

Throughout the war in Syria, education has come under repeated fire from both rebel forces and government forces. More than two million school-age children still inside the country are not attending classes. There are no comprehensive figures for attacks on schools countrywide, although UN agencies are attempting to collate information on both government and opposition-controlled areas. 

According to UNICEF, there were 60 attacks on schools in 2015, killing a total of 591 children. This year, the UN has documented 84 attacks on schools across Syria, with at least 69 children losing their lives and many others injured.

Last year, Save the Children said that half of the 8,500 global attacks on education between 2011 and 2014 had taken place in Syria. In 2016 alone, the charity added, three-quarters of the 60 schools it supports in Idlib and Aleppo provinces have been affected by bombing.

Syria’s orphans still haunted by trauma

Teachers and aid organisations believe the attacks on schools are deliberate.

Abdul Hammami, director of the US-based Swasia Charity Foundation, which runs 14 schools in Syria’s Ghouta region, believes that the Syrian government and its allies target schools to impair education and create images of chaos. “They want to give the impression they are fighting extremists, when of course they are the ones that are creating this,” he told Al Jazeera.

Renad Da’ef, 13, was killed in the Haas attack [Courtesy of Khaled Da’ef/ Al Jazeera]

Zeidan believes the motive lies in destroying Syrian identity: “The small dreams of our future teachers and doctors have been killed by criminals who do not know the meaning of compassion.”

“They [Russia and the regime] know that no one will be punished for those crimes. They are war criminals, because they killed children in the holy place – school.”

Russian officials were sceptical about the Haas attack. A spokesperson claimed that photos of the aftermath were “computer graphics”On the same day as the Haas attack, Syrian state media reported killing “terrorists” in Idlib province but did not report any dead or wounded children.

That was a far cry from Zeidan’s experience.

“The street [outside the school] was filled with corpses. I felt like I could not move – especially when I looked to my left and saw my husband’s nephew. He was dead.”

The story of one of the parents, Khaled Da’ef, also differed from the Russian and Syrian official media version of events. His 13-year-old daughter Renad, a top-of-the-class pupil, was killed in the Haas attack. “On the morning of the massacre, I took her to school and gave her her daily allowance. I did not expect that it would be the last goodbye.”

READ MORE: Syria’s Civil War Explained

Syria previously had a well-developed education system. Literacy rates were more than 90 percent for both sexes; enrolment was near 100 percent. The curriculum was thorough, although tightly controlled and wrought with glorification of the ruling Baath Party.

But as the Syrian conflict has worsened, attendance rates have dropped to less than 50 percent as schools have been bombed, while some others were turned into military bases and torture centres, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented specific examples of schools used as detention centres in Homs.

Other out-of-use schools in Aleppo and Homs provinces, and rural Damascus, have been turned into shelters for internally displaced people. 

In regime-held areas, including Tartous and Latakia provinces and central Damascus, education services continue. However a 2015 UNICEF report analysing the effect of the conflict across Syria found that parents living in such regions still feared sending their children to school, owing to perceived dangers en route or around the buildings themselves, trauma and poverty.

With schools coming under attack, it is often difficult to persuade parents to send their children to those that remain in use. Even the children now associate school with negative connotations. 

“Our children hate to hear the word ‘school’,” Zeidan said. “Even I have become afraid of going to school. I hate the sight of books or bags – they have become frightening memories.”

Teachers take lead on Syrian education

The problem is exacerbated by extreme poverty: Swasia has resorted to providing food packages for the worst-affected families in Ghouta, so that children are not forced into work to buy basic supplies.

Zeidan and her two children escaped the school unharmed. She and her colleagues are now clubbing together to give lessons to their pupils wherever and whenever possible. “We will not leave them in ignorance. They have the right to education, like all the world’s children.”

In eastern Aleppo, where up to 100,000 children remain under siege, teachers have replaced conventional classrooms with basements, for fear of strikes on schools and open spaces such as playgrounds. Other safety measures include replacing glass classroom windows with plastic.

In opposition-controlled Idlib province, schools have gone underground to protect children from aerial bombardments while they take lessons, and as schools have been destroyed.

For now, teachers like Zeidan on the ground in Syria bear the weight of the violence, and witness the mental strain on her country’s youngest generation.

“I loved my work at the school; it was a good school. I loved the pupils,”said Zeidan.

“A chasm full of great sorrow and fear has been left in the hearts of the students, parents and rest of the townspeople. What remains will not be erased from their hearts easily.”

Source: Al Jazeera


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