Human Rights Watch has issued a report establishing Russia’s responsibility — despite Moscow’s denials — for airstrikes on schools in Idlib Province on October 26, killing eight teachers and 18 children:
Analysis of satellite imagery provides additional verification that damage to a school complex in the village of Haas in Idlib on October 26, 2016, was caused by airstrikes carried out by the joint Russian-Syrian military operation in Syria, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the Russian Defense Ministry. The complex included a kindergarten, an elementary school, two middle schools, and a secondary school, witnesses reached by telephone said. The attacks also hit other nearby civilian infrastructure.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied that the attacks on the opposition-controlled town of Haas took place, on the basis of two still frames it released from footage from a surveillance drone of the school complex. The military rejected a November 6 Human Rights Watch report on the attacks that was based on interviews with witnesses. The report found that the strikes on Haas killed dozens of people, mostly schoolchildren. But the drone footage presented by the Russian Defense Ministry shows, and even marks, damage that matches the damage visible in the satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch. The Human Rights Watch report was also based on reviews of several videos of the attack and an interview with one of the videographers.
“The Russian government’s latest denials fly in the face of corroborated witness statements, videos, satellite imagery, and even its own drone footage,” said Bill Van Esveld, senior children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This denial is an insult to the victims and a symptom of the impunity and manipulation of information that has characterized the Syria conflict.”
Satellite imagery of Haas taken on November 5 shows four damage signatures consistent with airstrikes, including two impacts on adjacent schools that are part of the school complex, a third on an intersection 100 meters to the north, and the fourth on two buildings approximately 100 meters east of the schools next to an orchard. Human Rights Watch examined imagery from April 22, before the recent attack, which did not show any damage on the school complex.
The satellite imagery shows that strikes hit two sites within the school complex and partially destroyed the schools’ courtyard walls and several smaller buildings within the complex. In one of these two strikes, buildings across the street were also destroyed.
The damage found in the satellite imagery is consistent with multiple published videos and photographs of the attacks. A video filmed by the Kafranabel Media Center, a pro-opposition group, and published on YouTube on October 26, showed the descent and explosion of a parachute-retarded munition. Human Rights Watch determined that the munition hit the school complex in Haas by matching landmarks in the video with the satellite imagery.
Another video posted by the media office of the Revolutionary Forces of Syria includes one segment showing an SU-24 aircraft flying at medium altitude. A second segment, filmed from the same vantage point, shows a column of smoke rising from buildings in the distance and an object falling, causing an explosion. The landscape and buildings visible in the video appear to fit with satellite imagery of Haas. Only the Russian and Syrian militaries conduct airstrikes in Syria using SU-24 series aircraft.
Parachute-retarded munitions have been used by the Syrian air force dating back to November 2012 and have also been used during the joint Russian-Syrian military operation that began in September 2015. In this case, it appears that the bombs have been detonated in the air, close to the ground, to maximize the damage created by the blast effect of the weapon. Bombs that are detonated in the air in this way do not create a crater in the ground, as is characteristic of bombs that detonate on impact.
The satellite imagery analyzed by Human Rights Watch is also consistent with footage of the schools filmed by a Russian surveillance drone on October 27. The Russian Defense Ministry has repeatedly claimed that the two stills from the drone footage it released are evidence that no airstrikes occurred, because they do not show damage to the roofs of the school buildings or craters from aerial bombs nearby.
But the drone footage does show damage to two schoolyards that is consistent with the above-ground detonation of a blast or enhanced blast munition. One of the still frames even marks the site of damage resulting from an airstrike over one school compound. In the second frame, damages to a second school compound are partially obscured underneath the white crosshairs of the drone’s surveillance system.
Damages identified in the satellite imagery are further consistent with multiple other published videos including a video posted to YouTube by the Syrian Revolution Network, an opposition-affiliated group, showing significant blast damage to the courtyard wall of one of the schools, school complex buildings, and the facades of several of the buildings inside the school complex; a video published by Al Jazeera showing damage to at least two school buildings; an AFP photograph of a damaged classroom; and a video by SMART news that shows extensive damage in two other locations outside the school complex.
“The Russian Defense Ministry should stop trying to deny clear evidence of airstrikes on schools and ensure that Russian and Syrian forces are not attacking these schools,” Van Esveld said. “Russia’s account in which no bombs fell and no schoolchildren were killed is cynical and yet another reminder of the need for accountability in Syria.”
A Teacher’s Account
Human Rights Watch researchers previously spoke to seven witnesses to the attacks in Haas. On November 11, “Marwa”, a teacher at a boys’ school in the complex who asked that her real name not be published, described her experience of the attacks in a phone conversation with Human Rights Watch.
The school complex includes a boys’ school separated by a road from a girls’ school to the south east.
“And after that one there’s a kindergarten for little kids that was targeted in an airstrike three years ago after the Syrian army retreated from the town,” Marwa said. “And in between there’s an elementary school… They are separated by a road that goes through them. More [children and teachers] died from the girls’ school because when they went outside they were more exposed. In the boys’ school we could run towards the west.”
The airstrikes began when she was teaching her third class session, at around 10:10 a.m., Marwa said.
I heard a plane in the sky and noticed, from the window, a missile falling. I ducked and told the students to duck. At first, they started laughing, saying “it’s not going to hit us.” They didn’t know what was about to happen.
The first bomb exploded outside the school compound, and the children “jumped to the windows to watch what happened,” Marwa said. She said she saw a white plane, and a white bomb with a parachute.
I warned them and we all ducked. The second [bomb] fell on the wall of another school east of us. Our window was shattered during the blast and the children panicked. They grabbed me and started screaming. I was really, really scared. We went to the corridor since it’s more shielded. All the other teachers on the same floor gathered their [students] there. Each teacher had 10 or 15 children around her. They were all screaming.
The third bomb “fell on our school,” and wounded one child in the arm, a second child in the chin, and left a third child on the floor, bleeding, she said. A teacher carried the boy outside.
Our nerves broke down. Some students with me panicked and kept asking to flee. I was hesitating because we could still hear the planes outside. The fourth strike caused so much smoke and dust that we could barely see again. I told my students to hold each other’s hand, and we went outside. On our way out, we found that the strike had been on the school’s entrance. Bodies were on the ground. We didn’t know what we were stepping on.
As they left the school complex, “people started screaming that there was a fifth strike,” and they took shelter in a home nearby, where a “little girl was screaming, pleading for help. She couldn’t walk. So me and other teachers started yelling for the civil defense to come take her.” Marwa said she heard other bomb explosions, all within 20 minutes of the first attack. “We kept running from one home to another,” but bombs killed people inside the schools as well as those who fled, “because the airplanes also targeted the roads and the homes outside.”
Marwa feared that the attacks had harmed her two sons and her daughter, who were attending schools in the complex, and that when the mosque issued a call for people to identify the bodies of children, “I was crying, I had a nervous breakdown” due to her anxiety. She searched for her childrens’ bodies in the hospital because “I wasn’t expecting that they would be alive. What we saw, the bodies on the ground… no one would survive this.” One of Marwa’s relatives identified a girl’s corpse as that of her daughter. “He told me she was wearing a black outfit. But that day she was wearing jeans and a sweater. And then she arrived. She was hiding at an old woman’s house until the planes left. She’s safe now.” Her boys were also safe, she said.
Marwa identified five teachers who were killed in the attacks, including staff at the boys’ school, a math teacher in the girls’ school, and an English teacher in the elementary school. The schools are not functioning now, she said, and the “teachers who can still work are teaching the children in some designated homes.”
“There was no armed presence around the schools. Had there been, we wouldn’t have been teaching on that day,” Marwa said.