“In every home, there is sadness and fear. In every home, there is someone injured,” Fatimah told Human Rights Watch by text in 2017 while talking about a school bombing that killed her ten-year-old brother, Mohammed.
The attack on the school happened during the Syrian-Russian military alliance’s takeover of Eastern Ghouta, an anti-government enclave near Damascus. As in other cases, the attack used banned weapons such as cluster munitions, restricted humanitarian aid to starve the population into surrendering, and indiscriminately attacked places essential to daily life, like Mohamed’s school.
Five other children from Mohammed’s primary school were killed when a mortar round exploded right outside the entrance just as the children, all under 12, finished class and were waiting to buy sweets from a street vendor, who also died. At least 20 students were injured. “People in the town started looking for their children in the emergency [rooms] and in front of the school, because there were many children who were injured or who died,” Fatimah wrote.
Among them was a picture of Ahmad al-Musalmani, a 14-year-old boy who disappeared when he was travelling from Lebanon to Syria to attend his mother’s funeral.
The last time he was seen, Ahmad was on a minibus with five other people when an officer at a checkpoint took the passengers’ phones and found an anti-Assad song on Ahmad’s. The officer dragged Ahmad into a small room at the checkpoint, a fellow passenger told the family a day later.
Ahmad’s uncle, Dahi al-Musalmani, told Human Rights Watch that he went to see several government officials after Ahmad’s disappearance. He learned that Ahmad was likely in Air Force Intelligence custody and he paid more than US$14,000 in bribes in an attempt to secure Ahmad’s release, without success.
When the Caesar photographs were released, Dahi searched for Ahmad:
“I went directly to the folder of the Air Force Intelligence, and I found him. Oh, it was the shock of my life to see him here. I looked for him, 950 days I looked for him. I counted each day. When his mother was dying, she told me: ‘I leave him under your protection.’ What protection could I give?”
Human Rights Watch met Ibrahim and his older brother Omar, then 27, in 2015. Omar was acting as the primary caretaker for the family – which also included their mother and a younger brother.
They fled after government aircraft dropped a barrel bomb filled with explosives and nails 25 meters from the family’s pharmacy. Improvised, unguided, and hugely destructive, barrel bombs are an unlawful staple of government airstrikes. The devastation they bring is indiscriminate, meaning the bombs will hit children, families, and fighters alike. Families cannot remain safely in targeted areas.
Ibrahim’s family found temporary refuge in the Aleppo countryside. Then the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) took over that area, imposing a reign of systematic atrocities, and so they ran to Turkey, where Ibrahim, who should have been in 9th grade, found work painting cars.
He was already suffering health issues back then. His legs ached and his chest got tight from breathing in the toxic paint fumes.
“God willing in a month or so from now, when there is no ISIS around, we will go back to Syria,” Omar said at the time, adding that his brothers hoped to go back to school once they got home.
We may never know what happened to Ibrahim and his family, or others like them. That he ever made it back to school is doubtful. Nearly 900,000 Syrian children are out of school, slowly being robbed of their futures, because of lack of resources and impossible bureaucracy.
Even when they make it out of Syria, Syrian children face seemingly insurmountable challenges. Every day, brothers Yousef and Nizar passed by the school gates near their temporary home in Mount Lebanon, but they never got to set foot in a classroom.
Physical abuse of students is widespread in Lebanon, and Syrian children are often particularly vulnerable because of their tenuous legal status in the country. As a result, their families are often too afraid to complain.
Syrian siblings Ghaith and Rawan suffered regular beatings and abuse at the hands of teachers. The same teachers often banned Syrian children from going to the bathroom. When their mother complained, she too received racist abuse.
“[The school director] would just say ‘You Syrians get your education and healthcare for free and are ruining our country’.”
Ghaith described the pain of being hit on the back of the neck and back by a teacher, and on the hands with a metal ruler and an electrical cable.
“The electric cable cut open my hand and I was bleeding from it for a few days,” he said. Eventually he dropped out of school and started working as a cowherd.
“Instead of wasting my time not learning anything in school, I’d prefer to help my family.”
Rawan was also beaten several times, including by a gym teacher, “who slapped me on the face when I asked to go to the bathroom.”
“Knowledge is light and ignorance is darkness,” 10-year-old Bara’a told Human Rights Watch in 2016, sitting in the shade of a large tree near the camp in Lebanon where she lived with her family after fleeing the chemical weapons attack in Eastern Ghouta, not far from her home.
Bara’a was in school by the time Human Rights Watch met her, but even before she got to go, she had started teaching younger children what she could remember from first grade – the class she was in when she was forced from her home.
By the time she spoke to us in 2016, she had set up a mini school in a temporary structure covered in blue tarpaulin for the younger girls and boys in the camp.
“They should be studying so when they grow up, they can be whatever they want,” she said. “If one of them wants to be a teacher or a doctor, she needs to know how to read and write.”