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“Life here totally sucks”: Syrian civilians still under siege

Twelve people were killed this morning when mortars fell on a school in the Syrian capital Damascus.

Two mortar rounds struck the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute, whose students are as young as 14. At this early stage it is not known if students are among the number of casualties, which is thought to include at least 50 injuries.

This is by no means the first time that Syrian schools have come under attack from explosive weapons.

In the first three months of 2014, AOAV recorded 84 civilian casualties in explosive attacks on schools in Syria. All manner of explosive weapons have been responsible for these casualties, including improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

One particularly devastating day in February this year saw at least five refugee schoolchildren lose their lives as barrel bombs crashed into a school run by the United Nations in the southern town of Muzerib. Two more children lost limbs in the gruesome attack. AOAV recorded a total of 18 civilian deaths and a further 20 injuries in this one attack.

Barrel bombs have dominated recent news reporting of the Syrian conflict. These weapons, makeshift devices filled with fuel, metal and explosives that are manually rolled out of aircraft, are not a new threat to civilians on the ground. They were first seen in September 2012.

Since last December, however, the use of these weapons has massively escalated. Hundreds of civilians have been killed by the barrel bombing of populated areas, particularly the key city of Aleppo. Aleppo was formerly Syria’s biggest city, and even though the majority of its residents have now fled, hundreds of thousands remain at risk from the daily bombings that threaten their lives and homes. As is so often in the cases where massive explosive violence drives wholesale displacement, those that stay behind often include the elderly and vulnerable, those who have no choice but to remain.

 “Life here totally sucks. It isn’t a life: [we are] afraid of shells falling on our heads day or night. We don’t know if we go this way, if it’s safe or not.”

These were the words this week of one Aleppo resident, Feras, a young teacher. Feras was speaking to BBC reporters whose film from the city shows the indiscriminate and brutal impact of explosive violence in Aleppo. Barrel bombs are not merely unguided but incapable of being aimed. When they are shoved out of the planes and helicopters high over residential areas there is absolutely no guarantee of where they will fall.

And for those who have sought refuge away from Aleppo, what will they come back to? The BBC’s film shows ravaged streets of crumbling homes. When mortars, aircraft bombs and other explosive weapons go off in a populated area, everything that surrounds them is affected. Human Rights Watch (HRW), in their latest analysis of the impact of barrel bombs, has highlighted how the impact zone in which buildings are damaged or destroyed is particularly large when aerial bombs are deployed.

HRW say that “Military commanders should not, as a matter of policy, order the use of explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated areas due to the foreseeable harm to civilians.”

AOAV is a member of the International Network on Explosive Weapons (INEW), and has long argued the need for change in the way that people use explosive weapons. When these weapons are used in populated areas, not just in Syria but right around the world, they tend to lead to high levels of civilian harm. AOAV records the impact of explosive weapons around the world, using English-language media sources. In the first three years of the conflict, 89% of all the people who were killed or injured by explosive weapons were civilians. AOAV documented an average of 15 civilian deaths in every air-dropped incident in Syria.

In a rare show of consent, in February 2014 the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution on Syria that demanded “that all parties immediately cease all attacks against civilians, as well as the indiscriminate employment of weapons in populated areas, including shelling and aerial bombardment…

Today’s shelling of the Badr al-Din al-Hussein technical institute reinforces the need for this desperate plea to be heard.

Nowhere is safe in Syria anymore.