The Syrian government has interrogated students and carried out violent assaults on their protests and military attacks on schools, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Both government forces and opposition armed groups have used schools as military bases, barracks, detention centers, and sniper posts, turning places of learning into military targets and putting students at risk.
The 33-page report, “Safe No More: Students and Schools under Attack in Syria,” is based on more than 70 interviews, including with 16 students and 11 teachers who fled Syria, primarily from Daraa, Homs, and greater Damascus. The report documents the use of schools for military purposes by both sides. It also describes how teachers and state security agents interrogated and beat students for alleged anti-government activity, and how security forces and shabiha, pro-government militias, assaulted peaceful student demonstrations. In several instances reported to Human Rights Watch, government forces fired on school buildings that were not being used for military purposes.
“Syrian children have had to face things in the horrors of war that no child should have to bear – interrogated, targeted, and attacked,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch and author of the report. “Schools should be havens, but in a country that once valued schooling, many Syrian children aren’t even getting basic education and are losing out on their future.”
More than two years into Syria’s brutal conflict, children have lost months or years of education. At least one in five Syrian schools no longer functions, with thousands of schools destroyed, damaged, or sheltering people fleeing violence, according to the United Nation’s Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Many more schools are harboring fighters or military units.
Syrian government agents, including teachers, have conducted interrogations, arrests, and raids at six schools in Daraa, Homs, and greater Damascus, leading students to be afraid to go to school and to stay home, Human Rights Watch said. Teachers and school officials have interrogated students about their political views and alleged anti-government activities and those of their families, and in some cases beat students who engaged in anti-government activities.
Abdou, who attended fourth grade classes in Homs until May 2012, said that his math teacher asked him if his father kept a gun at home, and whether his family watched news channels that covered government abuses. When the teacher learned that Abdou had participated in an anti-government protest, she sent him to the school principal, who beat him five times with a rubber hose, he said.
Students, parents, and teachers told Human Rights Watch that they witnessed government security forces and militia assaulting or even shooting at peaceful student demonstrations and marches, in some cases injuring students. “They threw me on the ground [when they attacked our demonstration], but I managed to get away,” said Somaya, a 14-year-old girl from Damascus. “They shot at us. One girl got shot in her hand…. All the girls ran.”
In combat zones, the Syrian armed forces have committed apparent laws of war violations by conducting ground and air attacks on schools not being used for military purposes, Human Rights Watch said. In mid-2012 government forces and militias fired on schools in Daraa while students were inside. Government forces also have conducted at least two aerial attacks on school buildings in northern Syria.
Salma, a 14-year-old girl from Daraa, told Human Rights Watch that government forces fired on her school twice in mid-2012 while school was in session: “When the tank entered the school [grounds], it hit the walls of the school with machine guns,” she said. “So students got down [on the ground] to shelter. We spent half an hour or an hour there underneath our desks [before we could go home].” No one reported opposition fighters in the school at the time.
Both government forces and opposition armed groups have occupied schools and used them as command posts, barracks, detention centers, and for other military purposes, endangering children’s safety and right to education, Human Rights Watch said.
Government forces positioned snipers on the roofs of at least two schools in the Damascus governorate, one of which was still in session. Both sides have deployed their forces in schools, including some still functioning, making the schools military targets and placing students and school officials at risk.
“Both government forces and opposition armed groups have a responsibility to protect children’s lives and their right to education,” Motaparthy said. “By using schools for military purposes, they are putting children in harm’s way and destroying their hopes for their future.”
Before Syria’s uprising began in March 2011, about 93 percent of all eligible children were enrolled in primary education, and 67 percent in secondary education, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Institute for Statistics. Approximately 95 percent of the population between 15 and 24 could read.
Local civilian councils and activist groups have started improvised schools and community schools in areas where government schools were destroyed or where it is no longer safe to attend and in opposition-controlled areas. Communities have located these schools in mosques and in private homes. However, they lack school supplies and teaching materials, as well as adequate teachers, and require greater support from donor governments and humanitarian groups both to continue these programs and to strengthen their curriculum, pay teachers, and reach more students.
“Emergency and remedial education assistance is vital so children can continue their education during the armed conflict,” Motaparthy said. “Concerned governments and the UN Security Council should do all they can to make sure educational aid reaches Syrian children wherever the aid is needed.”