Aleppo’s children not safe from bunker-busting bombs as even underground schools have to close

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Children in Aleppo are in so much danger from bunker-busting ‘earthquake bombs’ that they cannot even go to schools that have been moved underground.

Schools in Eastern Aleppo were due to re-open for the new school year tomorrow [Saturday], but as the city continues to suffer a ferocious assault they will remain closed, depriving almost 100,000[1] school-age children of an education, and leaving them in fear for their lives.

Save the Children supports 13 schools in the city, eight of which are underground – they moved into basements over the last two years to try to protect children from shelling, air strikes, barrel bombs and artillery fire which regularly hit civilian areas. Now, with the use of so-called “bunker busting bombs” over the last week, which burrow four to five metres underground then explode, even the basements schools aren’t safe.

Omar*, a school principal in eastern Aleppo, said, “Parents are afraid to send their children to school because everything is targeted. The students are also suffering poverty on all levels, you see them barely walking, dragging themselves, which makes them unable to focus on the learning and studying.”

“Regarding the bunker buster bombs, of course only hearing the sound creates a state of terror and panic that is not like anything else. The immense power of destruction is the most important, it can destroy underground shelters and basements and the buildings get totally destroyed, not just partially.”

These weapons, also known as ‘earthquake bombs’ are designed to destroy military installations, with a delayed fuse which creates a huge explosion underground and leaves a crater. They have a devastating impact on civilian areas, killing and maiming people who thought they would be safer in a basement, and their use in Aleppo constitutes a potential war crime.

More than 300 children have been killed or injured in Eastern Aleppo in the past five days. Given the danger posed to children even in their own homes, it’s not safe for schools to reopen. Schools are also lacking the basic necessities such as fuel to light and heat the basements, water supplies, textbooks and pencils.

12 year old Amjad* said, “We are not going to school because the airplanes bomb any gathering. When the plane comes we sit on the floor, afraid that things might fall above us. One of my friends died in the bombing – he was my best friend. I love to go to school to study and I wish I could become a civil engineer to rebuild the houses that were destroyed.”

Even before this latest escalation, education had been decimated in the city. The official enrolment figures have fallen as low as 6 per cent, although thousands of children attend our schools every week. Through displacement, conflict and poverty, many children have dropped out or can only attend sporadically, and parents have been afraid to send their children to school for fear they will be targeted. In just the last three months, seven staff and five students have been killed just in the schools we support in Eastern Aleppo.

Nick Finney, Save the Children’s North West Syria Country Director, said: “We’re now more likely to see children being pulled from the rubble or treated on the floor of a hospital than sat at a school desk. Children deserve the right to play, to learn, to be children. The use of bunker busting bombs means there is literally nowhere we can keep children safe, and we want to see the use of these weapons investigated as a potential war crime.

“As families struggle for survival, the start of the new school year will come and go. Syria’s children have paid a heavy price for a conflict that is not of their making. This appalling escalation in violence will eventually end, but for those who survive, it will be very difficult to get back the years of schooling children have missed and rebuild their lives.”

Save the Children runs catch-up classes through the summer and has distributed ‘study at home kits’ so that when schools are closed because of the violence, children can still attempt to keep up their education. We have 54 education kits prepositioned to enter the city for schools, along with thousands of food baskets, but the siege and intense violence means the aid can’t reach Aleppo’s children.

We urgently need a ceasefire agreement that will end the indiscriminate attacks on civilians and allow us to bring aid in and reopen the schools. All parties to the conflict should cease the use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas due to the predictable pattern of harm caused to the civilian population and the inevitable deaths of more children. Save the Children is also calling for an impartial international investigation into the deadly attack on a UN/SARC aid convoy last week and into violations of International Humanitarian Law in the current escalation in Aleppo.

The continued use of heavy explosive weapons in populated areas throughout the conflict has caused death, destruction, injury, and psychological trauma to children and families across Syria. Attacks on schools have also become all too common. Armed forces and armed groups inside Syria should immediate cease the attacks against education facilities, teachers, and students and stop occupying schools for military purposes.

[1] The Syria Education Cluster estimates there are 94,260 children aged 5-17 in East Aleppo.

Notes to editors:

· Save the Children asks the Syrian authorities to express a clear political commitment to protect students and teachers from attack and schools from military use by endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration.

· All parties to the conflict should also stop attacking schools and immediately vacate the schools they are using, ensure that schools are safe for students to return, and issue orders to commanders not to use school buildings or school property in accordance to the ‘Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict