April 11, 2013

III. Deliberate Attacks on Bakeries

Through site visits, Human Rights Watch documented eight air strikes on four bakeries in Aleppo city, al-Bab, and Mare`, which killed at least thirty-five civilians who were waiting in line for bread. Human Rights Watch also documented attacks using surface-fire artillery on seven other bakeries.[63] According to a local opposition group, Syrian forces have attacked 78 bakeries across Syria, either by air strikes or by artillery shelling.[64] The pattern and number of these attacks suggest that government forces deliberately targeted civilians at the bakeries and breadlines.

The government issued no statement on the attacks on the bakeries documented by Human Rights Watch.

According to witnesses and Human Rights Watch’s site visits, there were no Free Syrian Army bases in the vicinity of these attacks. Free Syrian Army (FSA) members in the vicinity appear to have been carrying out policing operations and not directly participating in hostilities.

Bakeries are civilian objects protected from attacks.  As the bakeries run by the opposition in opposition-controlled areas are the only source of bread for the civilian population, they would also be protected as “objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population.”[65] The laws of war prohibits attacks that would “destroy, remove or render useless” such objects “for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value to the civilian population, whatever the motive, whether in order to starve out civilians, to cause them to move away, or for any other motive.”[66]

FSA members have been organizing and maintaining order at bread lines. Even if such individuals are armed, under these circumstances, they would be considered to be carrying out a policing function, and thus not subject to attacks. Were such individuals to be regular FSA fighters and thus valid military targets, attacking them by air strike in a crowded area would still amount to an unlawful disproportionate attack.

Aqyoul Bakery, Aleppo City

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, killing at least 23 people, and injuring more than 30. Human Rights Watch visited the site three days after the attack, reviewed videos filmed immediately before and after the attack, and interviewed witnesses, including two people who had filmed videos.

According to these accounts, a helicopter circled above the area prior to the attack. Shortly after the bakery opened around 5:30 p.m. and people started lining up to buy bread, the helicopter dropped two bombs, one of which struck the edge of a building on the opposite side of the bakery; the second hit about 50 meters away from the bakery.

“Mustafa,” a 17-year-old boy who filmed the aftermath and shared the video, told Human Rights Watch: “It was the worst I’ve ever seen.”[67] The video shows a line of what appears to be either dead or heavily injured people along the wall of the bakery. Many more bodies, some with limbs and heads blown off, can be seen on the ground around the bakery.

“Qais,” 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 of August 21, he had delivered flour to the bakery and was about to leave when the attack took place:

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 man 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.[68]

All witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that there were no opposition fighters in the immediate area with the exception of a couple of fighters responsible for maintaining order in the breadline.[69]

FSA fighters in the neighborhood said that they were engaged in a fight with government forces one or two kilometers from the bakery on August 21, but that there was no fighting near the bakery.[70]

Kanjou Bakery, Aleppo City

On August 20, a jet struck two apartment buildings in the al-Maysar neighborhood, killing 12 people and wounding 20 to 25 according to local residents. The buildings were located about 50 meters from the bakery, on either side of a parallel street to the one where the bakery is located. The bakery had been attacked at least twice before by artillery fire, according to local residents.[71] Having examined the damage to the buildings, Human Rights Watch believes that the August 20 attack was also directed at the bakery, but fell short. The bomb destroyed the top floor of the building furthest away from the bakery and the bottom floor of the building closest to the bakery, showing the direction and trajectory of the bomb, which would have hit the bakery had it been released an instant later.

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 fled from the bakery after hearing the jet. Among the wounded were seven children and five women from the Hidani family.

Residents in the street interviewed by Human Rights Watch believed that the jet had attempted to target the bakery.[72] 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.”[73]

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.

Mare`, Aleppo

Jets attacked the bakery in the eastern part of the town of Mare`, in northern Aleppo governorate, at least three times. Around 9:30 a.m. on August 22, a jet fired a rocket and then dropped a bomb about 30 meters from the bakery, but the bomb failed to detonate. According to 3 witnesses, about 300 people were in line at the time of the attack. Human Rights Watch visited the site on August 23 and saw a crater where the rocket hit, about 35 meters from the bakery.[74]

There were no casualties from the attack, as most people fled when they saw the jet. Earlier in August, Human Rights Watch researchers had driven past the bakery on several occasions and had not seen any FSA presence in the vicinity; two known FSA facilities in Mare` were located in other parts of town.

On September 11, 2012, jets again attacked near the bakery, but there were no casualties.[75]

Al-Bab, Aleppo

A jet bombed a bakery on the outskirts of the town of al-Bab in northeastern Aleppo governorate 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. 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.[76]

Human Rights Watch visited the site of the attacks and examined the craters. One crater was about 10 meters from the bakery; a second was about 50 meters away. There had been no fighting in al-Bab since July, when government forces were forced to withdraw. Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that they did not observe any FSA forces or weapons at the bakery.[77]

[63] For more information about the attacks on bakeries and breadlines, see “Syria: Government Attacking Bread Lines,” Human Rights Watch news release, August 30, 2012, http://www.hrw.org/news/2012/08/30/syria-government-attacking-bread-lines.

[64] “Comprehensive statistical report on targeting the Syrian regime for bakeries and ovens in the Syrian governorates,” Syrian Revolution General Commission, December 28, 2012, http://www.srgcommission.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=29559:2012-12-28-17-14-16&catid=72:2011-12-21-22-03-48&Itemid=115 (accessed January 28, 2013).

[65] Protocol 1, article 54.

[66] ICRC, Customary International Humanitarian Law, rule 54, citing Protocol I, art. 54; Protocol II, art. 14.  

[67] Human Rights Watch interview, Aleppo city, August 24, 2012.

[68] Human Rights Watch interview, Aleppo city, August 24, 2012.

[69] Ibid.

[70] Ibid.

[71] “Syria: Government Attacking Bread Lines,” Human Rights Watch news release.

[72] See “Syria: Government Attacking Bread Lines,” Human Rights Watch news release.

[73] Human Rights Watch interview, Aleppo city, August 22, 2012.

[74] Human Rights Watch site visit, Mare`, August 23, 2012.

[75] Human Rights Watch interviews and site visit, Mare`, December 11, 2012.

[76] Human Rights Watch interviews, al-Bab, August 24, 2012.

[77] Human Rights Watch site visit and interviews, al-Bab, August 24, 2012.