Civilian Deaths at Bakeries Are War Crimes
(New York) – Syrian government forces have dropped bombs and fired artillery at or near at least 10 bakeries in Aleppo province over the past three weeks, killing and maiming scores of civilians who were waiting for bread.
The attacks are at least recklessly indiscriminate and the pattern and number of attacks suggest that government forces have been targeting civilians, Human Rights Watch said. Both reckless indiscriminate attacks and deliberately targeting civilians are war crimes.
One attack in the city of Aleppo on August 16, 2012, killed up to 60 people and wounded more than 70. Another attack in the city on August 21 killed at least 23 people and wounded 30.
VIEWER DISCRETION ADVISED“Day after day, Aleppo residents line up to get bread for their families, and instead get shrapnel piercing their bodies from government bombs and shells,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch who has just returned from Aleppo. “Ten bakery attacks is not random – they show no care for civilians and strongly indicate an attempt to target them.”
Human Rights Watch researchers visited six of the attacked bakeries and interviewed witnesses:
- Bakery in Maare, northern Aleppo, August 22;
- Bakery in Al-Bab, northeastern Aleppo, August 21 and 22;
- Aqyuol bakery in Bab al-Hadid, Aleppo city, August 21;
- Al-Zarra bakery in Qadi Askar, Aleppo city, August 16;
- Kanjou bakery, al-Maysar, Aleppo city, August 16;
- Bakery in al-Halwaniya, Aleppo city, August 16;
Human Rights Watch collected credible information about four other attacks:
- Bakery in Manbij, northern Aleppo, August 24;
- Hussein bakery in al-Qaterji, Aleppo city, August 16;
- Bakery in Tariq al-Bab, Aleppo city, August 10;
- Bakery in al-Sheikh Sa’id district, Aleppo city, August 11.
After weeks of fighting in Aleppo province between government forces and the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), acute shortages of flour have forced many bakeries to close. Long lines of civilians regularly wait outside the remaining working bakeries to buy bread.
In all of the cases documented by Human Rights Watch, with the exception of the Manbij bakery attack, government forces attacked the bakery when local residents were waiting in line. The ordnance, which included artillery shells, rockets, and bombs, hit very close to the lines, and pieces of shrapnel sprayed the people gathered, killing and seriously wounding scores of them. In a few cases, people waiting in line ran away before the attack when they heard the approaching fighter jets.
Witnesses to all of the bakery attacks told Human Rights Watch that the government gave no warnings.
The 10 bakeries were in neighborhoods or towns where no fighting was taking place before or during the attack. In most cases, a few FSA fighters were at the bakeries to maintain order and assist with bread distribution, witnesses said, but they were usually not injured.
In one case, a FSA facility was located roughly 150 meters from the bakery, but it was not damaged. In the five other cases investigated by Human Rights Watch, no military targets apart from the few FSA fighters maintaining order were seen in the area.
The presence of some FSA fighters at the bakeries would not make those attacks lawful, given the substantial number of civilians who were present. The government made no apparent attempt to target the small number of fighters or to minimize damage to civilians, Human Rights Watch said. In some cases, a helicopter hovered over the area prior to the attack, so the presence of civilians would have been known.
One of the deadliest attacks was in the Qadi Askar neighborhood in Aleppo city on August 16. Around 5:45 a.m., one or two artillery shells hit the square near one of the FSA bases in the neighborhood, about 150 meters from the bakery. The shell caused no damage to the facility or casualties among FSA members. Fifteen minutes later, three more shells hit the area within a few minutes, successively closer to the bakery, where several hundred people were waiting for bread.
The third shell hit the street a few meters from the bakery, spraying shrapnel into the line of people. The exact number of casualties is difficult to verify, but records viewed by Human Rights Watch at the Dar Al Shifaa hospital, which received most of the wounded and killed from the attack, list 49 identified and 11 unidentified bodies, and 76 injured people.
In an attack on August 21, a bomb from a helicopter hit a bread line at the Aqyoul bakery in the Bab al-Hadid area of Aleppo, killing at least 23 people and wounding more than 30. “Fais,” a 44-year-old tailor who was wounded in the attack, told Human Rights Watch:
I was standing near the door of the bakery when the bomb hit – I just covered my head with my hands and ran for my life. I ran into a store next door and only there I realized that I was injured – in my side and left arm.
There was black smoke everywhere, and broken glass. The bomb hit the corner of the street, and the shrapnel flew straight into the line – everyone still there was either killed or heavily injured. I saw one guy on the ground without a leg, another without an arm, then a 16-year-old boy whom I knew, Rafat Makik Halak, without a head… One of my cousins, Ahmed, lost his arm and leg, and died afterwards. My sister, who was also injured, is still in the hospital.
Further details on this and other attacks are provided below.
International humanitarian law (laws of war) prohibits attacks directed at civilians and civilian objects and indiscriminate attacks. The laws of war require parties to a conflict to take constant care during military operations to spare the civilian population and to “take all feasible precautions” to avoid or minimize the incidental loss of civilian life and damage to civilian objects. These precautions include doing everything feasible to verify that the objects of attack are military objectives and not civilians or civilian objects, and giving “effective advance warning” of attacks when circumstances permit.
Military commanders must choose a means of attack that can be directed at military targets and will minimize incidental harm to civilians. If the weapons used are so inaccurate that they cannot be directed at military targets without imposing a substantial risk of civilian harm, they should not be deployed. Attacks that violate the principle of proportionality are also prohibited. An attack is disproportionate if it is expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life or damage to civilian objects greater than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated from the attack.
Serious violations of the laws of war, including deliberate, indiscriminate, and disproportionate attacks harming civilians committed with criminal intent – that is, deliberately or recklessly – constitute war crimes. Commanders and civilian leaders may be prosecuted for war crimes when they order, assist, or are otherwise complicit in the attacks and also as a matter of command responsibility when they knew or should have known about the commission of war crimes and took insufficient measures to prevent them or punish those responsible.
The 10 bakeries were providing bread for the civilian population and were clearly civilian objects, Human Rights Watch said.
“Every pilot who deliberately launches a rocket at a bread line of civilians, and every commander who gives such an order, should face justice for their crimes,” Solvang said.
Human Rights Watch urged Russia and China to stop obstructing United Nations Security Council action to protect civilians in Syria. The Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, impose an arms embargo on the Syrian government, and adopt targeted sanctions against officials involved in abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
Attacks on Bread Lines Documented by Human Rights Watch:
Al-Zarra bakery in Qadi Askar, Aleppo city, August 16
At around 5:45 a.m. on August 16, government-fired artillery shells struck near a FSA facility in the Qadi Askar neighborhood in Aleppo city. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that between three and five minutes later, two shells hit apartment buildings in an area on the other side of the street from the al-Zarra bakery. A fourth shell exploded in the street a few meters from the breadline where several hundred people were waiting in line on both sides of the entrance.
The exact number of casualties is difficult to verify. Several witnesses who were at the bakery at the time of the attack, or who arrived immediately thereafter to help the wounded, said they saw between 35 and 50 dead people. Records viewed by Human Rights Watch at the Dar Al Shifaa hospital, where most of the wounded and dead were taken, list 49 identified and 11 unidentified bodies received that day, as well as 76 injured people. Human Rights Watch was not able to verify whether all of the killed and injured recorded by the hospital came from the attack at the al-Zarra bakery.
Human Rights Watch visited the site of the attack and examined the place where the last shell exploded. At the time of Human Rights Watch’s visit, hundreds of people were waiting in front of the still-functioning bakery.
“Samir,” who lives across the street, told Human Rights Watch that at just before 6 a.m. he heard a whistling sound and an explosion, and he ran out to see what happened:
There were between 40 and 50 people on the ground, covered in blood, and body parts – arms and legs all over. I remember a little boy, maybe five years old, killed, his head split open, and there was still a piece of bread in his mouth. The FSA brought a truck to take the dead and injured away – there were too many of them.
“Fadi,” who lives in a building on the other side of the street from the bakery told Human Rights Watch:
When the shelling started we went to the basement. Suddenly there was a huge explosion. We thought that the shell had hit our building. When I went out to see what happened I saw a lot of dead bodies on the street – there were at least 15. Others died later from their injuries. People were yelling. The FSA, who had arrived to help the injured, told us to forget about the dead and focus on the injured. We loaded the injured up on cars and sent them to the hospital.
Kanjou bakery, al-Maysar neighborhood, Aleppo city, August 16
Around 10 p.m. on August 16, three artillery shells landed outside the Kanjou bakery in the al-Maysar neighborhood in Aleppo city while civilians were lining up for bread. Three witnesses said the first shell struck about 30 meters from the bread line, damaging an ambulance. The second shell hit the other side of the street, and the third shell hit close to the breadline. Witnesses said that there was less than a minute between the first and third shell. The attack killed an elderly woman and wounded 17 people, including six FSA fighters who were organizing the bread line.
One FSA fighter whose right arm was wounded in the attack told Human Rights Watch:
After the attack on the Qadi Askar bakery that same morning we had become very nervous about bakeries. But people lined up anyway – they need bread. When the first shell struck, however, everybody fled. There were several children among the wounded.
The FSA fighter told Human Rights Watch that a helicopter had been circling above just before the attack, raising the possibility that the helicopter had located the gathering of people for the artillery unit. A group of local residents on the street gave a similar description of the attack.
The following day, August 17, a jet struck the same bakery directly with a rocket, causing significant damage but no casualties because the bakery was closed.
On August 20, a bomb dropped by a jet struck two buildings on either side of a nearby street parallel to the one with the bakery, killing 12 people and wounding 20 to 25 according to local residents. The residents said that those killed included four members of the Hidani family, ages 10, 16, 16, and 75, whose house was struck by the bomb. Six of the other victims were killed in the street as they were fleeing from the bakery after hearing the jet. Among the wounded were seven children and five women from the Hidani family.
The bomb hit a building on one side of the street, destroying the top floor, and another building on the other side of the street, destroying its lower floors. The damage to the two buildings, examined by Human Rights Watch, indicates that the bomb might have been intended for the bakery, but fell short. Residents in the street interviewed by Human Rights Watch believed that the jet had attempted to target the bakery.
One resident told Human Rights Watch:
When they heard the jet people knew that the bakery could be targeted so they ran to hide in our street. The bomb fell short, however, striking our street instead of the bakery.
When Human Rights Watch visited the area two days after the attack, four FSA fighters were sitting across from the bakery, but there were no indications of any other military activity in the area. According to the FSA soldiers, the nearest FSA base is 400 meters away.
Aqyoul bakery in the Bab al-Hadid neighborhood, Aleppo city, August 21
At around 6 p.m. on August 21, a helicopter dropped two bombs near Aqyoul bakery in the Bab al-Hadid neighborhood in Aleppo city. One bomb struck the edge of a building on the opposite side of the street where people were lining up in front of the bakery; the second hit about 50 meters away. The attack killed at least 23 people, and wounded more than 30.
Human Rights Watch reviewed several videos made by witnesses immediately after the attack and interviewed the people who had filmed videos. One shows a helicopter circling over the area immediately before the attack. Another video shows the aftermath of the attack: a line of what appears to be either dead or heavily injured people along the wall of the bakery where people were waiting for bread. Many more bodies, some with limbs and heads blown off, can be seen on the ground around the bakery. A 17-year-old boy who shared the video with Human Rights Watch, said:
In the afternoon there was a helicopter circling above the area for about 4 hours. I thought it was strange and so I took my camera and started filming. Around 6 p.m., when the attack happened, I was just 20 meters away from the bakery. I saw the bomb falling and ran for cover. The bomb hit the building in front of the bakery, and then the street. I went out to film – I cannot describe it. It was the worst I’ve ever seen.
“Fais,” a 44-year-old tailor, who worked as a volunteer at the bakery and was wounded in the attack, told Human Rights Watch that in the afternoon he had delivered flour to the bakery and was about to leave when the attack took place:
There were about 200 people near the bakery, standing in line. I heard the helicopter, and started telling people that there was no more bread left – I just wanted them to leave, away from danger. Many left but for others it was too late. I was standing near the door of the bakery when the bomb hit – I just covered my head with my hands and ran for my life. I ran into a store next door and only there I realized that I was injured – in my side and left arm.
There was black smoke everywhere, and broken glass. The bomb hit the corner of the street, and the shrapnel flew straight into the line – everyone there was either killed or heavily injured. I saw one guy on the ground without a leg, another without an arm, then a 16-year-old boy whom I knew, Rafat Makik Halak, without a head… One of my cousins, Ahmed, lost his arm and leg, and died afterward. My sister, who was also injured, is still in the hospital.
Another witness told Human Rights Watch that his brother, 22-year-old Muhammad Bashir Saqal, died in the attack:
I was in our house, close to the bakery, while my brother was standing in line. At around 6 p.m., I saw the helicopter coming low, and then heard a big blast – the entire building shook, and we all ran to the basement. I waited about 20 minutes and then came out to help the injured. I first found one of my cousins who was injured, and just as I managed to get him to one of the cars that were taking the wounded to the hospital, someone told me that my brother was injured as well.
We found him – he was injured in the neck and in his stomach – and my father together with another cousin tried to get him to the hospital. But he died on the way. On the way to hospital, there was a shabeeha [pro-government militia] checkpoint. They stopped the car, and arrested my father and cousin, and took my brother’s body away. They were released two days later, and then my father found out that Muhammad’s body was buried near the [government-controlled] university hospital. We still need to go there and find his grave.
One of the FSA fighters who participated in the rescue operation, told Human Rights Watch that they took 21 dead bodies and 3 people with lethal injuries as well as the other wounded people to Dar Al Shifaa hospital, but that the hospital was full so they had to send some of the bodies and wounded people to the government-controlled Razi hospital. According to records viewed by Human Rights Watch at Dar Al Shifaa hospital, the hospital received 17 dead bodies, 3 of them unidentified, from the Bab al-Hadid bakery attack. The hospital transferred 29 wounded people and 5 dead bodies to another hospital. One of the wounded, a child, died shortly thereafter, and another five, with very serious wounds, had little chance of survival, the hospital staff told Human Rights Watch.
FSA fighters in the neighborhood said that on the morning of August 21 they were engaged in a fight with government forces a kilometer or two from the bakery, but that there was no fighting near the bakery. They believed that government forces, after trying to push the FSA back for several hours, decided to use a helicopter attack against the bakery to draw the FSA forces away from the fight.
Bakery in al-Halwaniya, Aleppo city, August 16
Local residents in al-Halwaniyatold Human Rights Watch that 11 people, between 11 years old and 60, were killed when an artillery shell struck the bakery building around 6 p.m. on August 16. Human Rights Watch was not able to interview the residents in detail because of the precarious security situation, but staff at Dar Al Shifaa hospital confirmed the attack, providing Human Rights Watch with the names of six of the people who were killed.
Bakery in Maare, Northern Aleppo, August 22
On August 22, at around 9.30 am, a fighter jet attacked a bakery in the town of Maare in northern Aleppo province, witnesses told Human Rights Watch. The jet fired a rocket and then dropped a bomb near the bakery in the eastern part of town. According to three witnesses, about 300 people were in line at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch visited the site and saw a crater where the rocket hit, about 35 meters from the bakery.
There were no casualties from the attack as most people fled when they saw the jet, and the bomb did not explode – it landed 30 meters from the bakery. Human Rights Watch saw no FSA activity or facilities anywhere in the vicinity; two known FSA facilities in Maare are located in other parts of town.
Bakery in Al-Bab, northeast Aleppo province, August 21 and 22
A bakery on the outskirts of the town of Al-Bab in northeastern Aleppo province was bombed by fighter jets at least three times: at 4 p.m. and 11 p.m. on August 21, and around 11 p.m. on August 22.
The attacks on August 21 did not cause casualties. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that during the first attack nobody was near the bakery. During the second attack, people who were waiting in line – about 20 men and 10 women – ran away as soon as they saw the jet approaching and nobody was wounded.
On August 22, the jet dropped two bombs near the bakery. Human Rights Watch visited the site of the attacks and examined the craters. One was about 10 meters from the bakery and one about 50 meters away. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that most of the people who were waiting in line fled when they saw the jet, but that three men and one boy were wounded.