Sunday, 4 December 2016

Attacks on schools aim to 'destroy Syria's identity'

 'Wafa Mohammed Ali Zeidan, 35, was in the third-grade classroom when she heard the aeroplane'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. A teacher for 13 years, Zeidan had witnessed previous aerial bombardments in the course of Syria's five-year-long 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."

 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."

 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 student, 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."

 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."

 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." '

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