“We Didn’t Think It Would Hit Us:” Understanding the Impact of Attacks on Schools in Syria

Save Syrian Schools
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Download the full report in English here.

Download the full report in Arabic here.

Executive Summary

“Everything changed.” Such are the words of a young Syrian student speaking about the aftermath of an attack on his school that took the lives of his brother and friends and forever changed his. He now works in a tailor’s office because he could no longer bear going to school, carrying with him the memories of that day and the loved ones he lost.  His story is just one among countless others of lives irrevocably changed as the result of attacks on schools and the loss, not only of loved ones, but of childhood, innocence, and opportunity. Worse, it is not just individual lives that have been changed. The widespread attacks on schools during the country’s brutal conflict have torn apart families, left behind shells of formerly vibrant communities, and altered the future of Syrian society.

The report, “‘We Didn’t Think It Would Hit Us:’ Understanding the Impact of Attacks on Schools in Syria,” examines attacks on schools from multiple angles: from the legal implications of such attacks to the everyday impact on the lives of students, teachers, families, and society at large. The findings leave no doubt that the impacts are as numerous as they are vast and, at best, will take decades to meaningfully address. Of course, such a process cannot even really begin until the ongoing onslaught of violence against Syrian civilians stops and real action is taken to reverse the country’s rapid spiral from repression to peaceful protest to brutal armed conflict in response to these protests.

The report has been years in the making, and the process of writing it is in itself notable. It began when 11 organizations—10 Syrian and one international—came together in search of a way to combat the growing fatigue beginning to afflict Syrian activists, as a result of documenting increasingly abhorrent and unending violations of human rights and against a backdrop unfulfilled promises of action and accountability. At the start of the conflict, these activists and other civil society actors coalesced quickly, creating transitional justice proposals and post-conflict road maps. They documented violations based on the belief that the conflict would end quickly and those responsible for human rights violations would be brought to justice swiftly. Of course, what has happened instead is that the conflict has only intensified with each passing year, becoming increasingly complex as more and more actors are introduced, many from outside Syria.

Fatigued yet undeterred, after a series of dialogues and careful consultations with a wide set of civil society stakeholders, the 11 coauthoring organizations came together to work on a joint project—dubbed the Save Syrian Schools project—that would combine and amplify the different organizational strengths represented within the group. These capacities range from storytelling and advocacy, to large and highly credible networks of on-the-ground documenters and valuable archives of information. The result is a body of work that shines desperately needed light on the voices of Syrians affected in diverse ways by attacks on schools and calls attention to the glaring breaches of human rights that have occurred with regard to these acts of destruction. The driving force behind the year and a half of dedicated work is the desire to, first, end the violence and, second, ensure that the resulting harms are fully understood so that national and international actors alike are left with no choice but to address them through a nuanced and well-informed process of justice, acknowledgment, redress, and reform.

The findings of the report are informed by several sources: the databases and archives of group members detailing individual attacks on schools and providing information on methods of attack, location, school names, casualty numbers, likely perpetrators, and so on; careful desk research with priority given to the research, publications, and other resources produced by partner organizations; and in-person field interviews and focus groups with students, teachers, school staff, parents, and local officials from communities affected by school attacks.

The Scope of the Issue

Pulling together all available documentation, the Save Syrian Schools project organizations counted a total of 1,292 schools that were attacked from 2011 to mid-2017.These figures are painstakingly documented and also modest; the UN Secretary General issued a report at the end of 2014, concluding that 4,072 schools have been closed or damaged or are now being used as shelters. Others estimate that one in three schools in Syria is currently nonoperational because they were destroyed, turned into displacement centers, or repurposed for military functions, which would put figures even higher.

The impact of attacks on schools and conflict more broadly on Syrians’ education levels is also striking: In 2012, the year after the conflict began, the percentage of students continuing to secondary school dropped from 98 percent the year prior to only 57 percent. and in the 2015-16 school year at least 2.3 million Syrian children inside Syria and in neighboring countries were out of school, and 1.3 million remain at risk of dropping out of school.

In terms of sheer violence and harm that has befallen Syrian children, the conflict has been brutal. A recent report by researchers in Belgium shows that the Syrian conflict stands out for both the magnitude of children affected by violence and the manner by which they have fallen victim to the war. Death tolls are both staggering and wide ranging, but research published using data from Violations Documentation Center (VDC) shows that civilian deaths constitute 70.6 percent of all conflict-related violent deaths. In total, VDC estimates that 19,555 children were killed from early 2011 until December 2016.

Legal Findings

A comprehensive legal analysis was conducted using applicable frameworks for international humanitarian and human rights law and was based on seven case studies of specific attacks. The case studies highlight the grave breaches of obligations applicable under international law for the protection of children and civilians in armed conflict, including those contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, as well as the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977. The attacks that the group selected were, for the most part, well covered in the media, in large part due to their horrific nature. All have been publicly condemned by international actors, who have separately concluded that they constitute violations of human rights. Priority was also given to cases where attacks caused significant child casualties, appear to have been intentional or indiscriminate, involved the use of weapons prohibited under international law, illuminate common patterns observed to have been used by parties to the conflict, and were committed against schools not being used for military purposes at the time of attack.

“We Didn’t Think It Would Hit Us” confirms that the devastation wrought on schools and students by the government of President Bashar al-Assad and other parties to the conflict appears to violate many of the foundational rules of international law. Certain weapons, such as cluster munitions and incendiary bombs, have been used in areas of Syria where schools were located and operating. These weapons are banned by much of the world, whereas others, such as barrel bombs, are considered indiscriminate by nature because of the magnitude of suffering they are likely to inflict. Their use appears to be in contravention of prohibitions on indiscriminate attacks and, certainly, to be disproportionate.

Ultimately, of course, the government of Syria bears primary responsibility for protecting its population and civilian infrastructure. Because children are among the most vulnerable members of society and become more so during conflict, they are accorded both general protections as civilians and special protections as persons who are particularly vulnerable under international law. Syria is a state party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and, under its 2012 Constitution, is obligated to “protect . . . childhood, take care of young children and youth and provide the suitable conditions for the development of their talents.”

And yet, the report finds several indicators that suggest clear intentionality of attacks, including use of guided missiles; knowledge of locations of schools; scouting, monitoring, and surveillance of locations before attacks; serial attacks on more than one school or school compound in quick succession on the same day; and repeat attacks on the same school at different points during the conflict.

The prohibition against indiscriminate attacks and the principle of proportionality are intended to guide all military behavior, including aerial bombing campaigns, which are commonplace in the Syrian conflict. Despite this prohibition, the attacks on schools appear to be indiscriminate, as the report clearly highlights through an examination of several factors. For example, many schools were hit during mass bombardments of densely populated civilian areas. In many instances, it seems unlikely that responsible commanders gave due consideration to the potential loss of civilian life in advance of an attack because the weapons used make it virtually impossible to limit or control harm to civilians. For instance, in addition to mortars and rockets, the Syrian government and its allies used a range of other weapons that are dropped from aircraft and are difficult to direct or to limit the potential impact. Given the magnitude of schools attacked and the scope of death and destruction caused, the report finds that it is unlikely that combatants were unaware of the civilian death toll.

The Human Side of Conflict: Assessing the Impact of Attacks on Syrian Lives

The widespread destruction of schools throughout Syria has had innumerable consequences for the country and its civilians. The interviews and focus groups conducted for the study highlight a number of these key impacts, pertaining both to the experiences of students, teachers, and others before and during attacks, as well as to their aftermath. Of course, time will only give rise to still more hardships and long-term harms in the lives of those affected, particularly if violence does not end soon.

One notable finding highlighted in the report is the care with which interviewees discussed the many steps schools and communities have taken to ensure that, despite the horrors of the conflict around them, children can still get the best education possible given the circumstances. Schools are putting into place the necessary procedures so that they may be prepared at any moment for an attack, a reality at once pragmatic and heartbreaking for the way it betrays a sense of normalization of conflict. Rather than being able to focus on the education of young people—in any context, a complex and important endeavor—schools are running evacuation drills and installing hospital wings. Rather than dreaming of an end to violence, societies are resigned to mitigate the damage of inevitable future attacks.

As a result of attacks against schools, hundreds of teachers have been killed, scores have left the country, and many others simply no longer show up for work. Damaged transportation infrastructure makes it difficult to even get to school, and frequent arrests of students and teachers who do make it and are believed to be partaking in anti-government protests compound fears of future attacks. Terrified parents refuse to send their children to school for fear of more violence, exacerbating the education gap and expanding the “lost generation” of Syrians growing up knowing only conflict and receiving little or no education. What is more, this fear has affected girls in higher numbers than boys and led to increased rates of child marriage, as parents desperately seek other options for their children. Conversely, parents spoke out about fears of their children, especially boys, becoming radicalized after living with so much violence all around and not having school as an option.

It is not just parents who are afraid for their children—students and teachers alike spoke of being traumatized by past attacks and too scared to go back to school after losing limbs or watching their friends die. The lifelong impact of amputations was a very common theme, as was the intense psychological and emotional trauma experienced by both students and teachers.

The issue of school curriculum is another salient factor weighing on the minds of Syrians, including the very organizations authoring the report, based on their experiences as Syrians and activists. Where schools are still operating, the curricula have started to vary from region to region and are subject to the whims of the controlling parties. This situation is especially extreme in areas held by Islamist State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS; also known as ISIL and Da’esh) and Al-Qaeda affiliates, but is true throughout the country. Disparate and politically charged curricula will need to be unified and also supplemented with truthful information about not just the conflict itself but the decades of repression and other root causes that preceded and gave rise to it. Syria must grapple with the task of reflecting the voices of all sides and all victims and teaching values of truth, justice, acknowledgment, and peaceful coexistence where once existed bias, control, and one-sided views.

Despite all of this, alongside the bleak picture of life inside Syria painted by those who participated in interviews and focus groups, a parallel image also emerged—one of hope, resilience, and clear dedication both to education and the overall well-being of Syria’s children and young people. Interviewees spoke of the numerous ways communities have been proactive in doing what they can, through local efforts, for example, to provide psychosocial support for victims or hosting campaigns to motivate students to go back to school. Teachers spoke of doing their jobs without pay and in spite of threats on their lives. In every community where interviews and focus groups were held, participants spoke of the creation of alternative schooling options, underground or in rotating homes, that provide a marginally safer environment for students to pursue their education.


Stopping Attacks and Respecting International Standards

To parties to the conflict:

  • First and foremost, all attacks on schools must cease immediately. Access to safe and quality education is a right and nonnegotiable for Syrian families and communities.
  • Immediately pass domestic laws and military policies outlawing attacks on schools and their use by the military during conflict.
  • All parties involved in the conflict must fully respect international humanitarian law (IHL), sparing and protecting civilian populations from the hazards of armed conflict, and fully respect international human rights law, especially the Convention of the Rights of the Child and its Protocol on children in armed conflict;
  • Cluster munitions have reportedly been used by the Syrian regime and in Russian-Syrian joint operations. Both of these parties, as well as the others involved in the conflict in Syria, should sign and ratify the Convention on Cluster Munitions and immediately cease using this form of munitions.

To international organizations and UN member states:

  • A distinctive emblem that is both recognizable and visible is needed to protect schools from attack, similar to the emblems used to protect hospitals, medical vehicles, and people providing medical services and relief in armed conflict or to protect religious sites and cultural heritage. An international agreement should be reached to create such a distinctive emblem, define how it can and should be used, and outline clearly what obligations exist on the part of armed forces for respecting such an emblem. That IHL emblem should grant special protection to schools and children in the Syrian conflict and guarantee those schools and those children the special protection and respect to which they are entitled under international law. All countries that are signatories of the Geneva Conventions should be required to enact domestic laws and military policies prohibiting attacks on schools displaying the distinctive school emblem.
  • Refer this report to the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism to Assist in the Investigation and Prosecution of Those Responsible for the Most Serious Crimes under International Law Committed in the Syrian Arab Republic since March 2011 (IIIM) to start full investigations into attacks on schools in Syria.
  • The UN Security Council should act immediately in response to the attacks on schools, including by referring the situation in Syria to the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court for investigation.
  • All state parties should immediately sign the Safe Schools Declaration endorsing implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. In addition to considering all “feasible alternatives before attacking” a school or university, under Guideline 4(a), “Prior to any attack on a school that has become a military objective, the parties to armed conflict should take into consideration the fact that children are entitled to special respect and protection,” as well as “the potential long-term negative effect on a community’s access to education posed by damage to or the destruction of a school.”

Restoring the Education System

  • Immediately start rebuilding and repairing Syria’s schools and education system throughout the country.
  • To fill the tremendous gaps in education caused by the conflict, consider steps to accelerate the learning that has been missed, recognize certain types of informal schooling or tests, and provide support and opportunities to prepare for and take qualifying exams that were missed during conflict.
  • A peace process should include a rigorous reassessment and reform of the national curriculum that not only gives every student the same quality education but also teaches about history in an unbiased way that does not glorify one side or another but presents facts and sheds light on victims’ voices and narratives of justice, peace, and coexistence.
  • Teachers who are still in Syria should be supported and protected. This includes ensuring safe access to salary payments, freedom from harassment and attack, and support to schools so they have adequate materials and safe environments in which to teach.
  • Not much is known about the situation of students and the broader education system in areas under the control of ISIS. More research and perhaps a full investigation is needed to address any specific harms or additional consequences of violations being committed in these areas.

Acknowledgment and Reparative Actions

  • The Syrian government and other parties complicit in or responsible for attacks on schools—including nonstate armed groups and foreign actors with direct involvement in attacks—should issue a public acknowledgment of the harms they have causes to schools, children, teachers, parents, families, and communities. They should issue a full public apology to all victims of these attacks.
  • Provision of psychosocial support should be an immediate priority as well as a long-term need that must form part of relief and reparations measures.
  • Reparations programs must consider the massive loss of education and should include some of the steps noted earlier—accelerating learning options, recognizing informal schooling and international credits, supporting opportunities to prepare for and take qualifying exams that were missed during conflict—as well as other forms of educational and possibly vocational assistance based on a thorough assessment of victims’ needs.
  • Loss of limbs has been a widespread consequence of violence and attacks. Long-term medical support, rehabilitation, and funds for prosthetic limbs—including replacements as needed until children have fully grown—must be provided to victims.
  • Incentives must be provided for teachers to return to Syria. For those who have started teaching in informal settings, some accelerated qualification program must be created to allow them to use that experience and become teachers.