Going to school in Aleppo is now ‘a matter of life or death’

Children in conflicts, Education in emergencies

The Syria Representative for UNICEF has just returned from Aleppo and says she is haunted by the plight of children living through the bombardment of the city.

For millions of children around the world, the journey to school is fun. They laugh and play with their friends as they walk or take the bus to their lessons.

Not in Aleppo. In the besieged Syrian city, the trip from home to the classroom is fraught with danger.

“There is no safe place left in Aleppo. Even going to school can be a matter of life or death,” said Hanaa Singer, the Syria Representative for the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF.

Just back from Aleppo, she was so moved by the plight of its children that she released a lengthy statement today.

Singer said: “I will be forever haunted by the images of the bodies of the two beautiful girls, Hanadi and Lamar, who left for school one morning with pink ribbons in their hair. They never made it. 

“Shrapnel from a mortar hit them on the way and they were killed. Hanadi’s hand still grasped the remains of a chocolate bar.

“This year there have been 84 attacks on schools in Syria with at least 69 children losing their lives and many others injured while being at school.”

Singer said – even by the standards of the five-year Syrian civil war – the shelling and bombardment of parts of Aleppo had been “the most intense”.

More than 31,000 people have been displaced from the city in the past 10 days and half of them appear to be children. 

The UNICEF Representative travelled to Jibreen on the outskirts of the city, where a shelter for displaced people has been set up in a large warehouse.

“Families huddled together on mattresses on the floor,” she said. “The damp and piercing cold made the conditions even tougher.

“To the soundtrack of the deafening noise of explosions and firing of heavy weapons, the children, who were attending psychosocial support activities, shared some stories. 

They were afraid. And the greatest fear for all of them was the sound of planes … for the aftermath is always horrific. Hanaa Singer, Syria Representative for UNICEF

“They shared stories of how they cowered for days and weeks in dark and damp basements in fear of the shelling in besieged east Aleppo. They shared their dark memories of destruction, and the smell of dead bodies under the rubble.

“They said they were happy to be outside, to enjoy the sun and feel the air. To be able to sing and to play. But they missed friends, fathers and elder brothers. 

“They missed their schools. They missed their books, games and one girl was missing her teddy bear.

“The shelling and explosions were unrelenting and deafening. The children laughed at me every time I winced as the terrible sounds of war filled the air – not real laughter but an abnormal reaction born out of a complete loss of normalcy.

“They were also afraid. And the greatest fear for all of them was the sound of planes … for the aftermath is always horrific.”

Singer said that in the two days she there almost 100 mortars fell on western Aleppo, adding: “Only a few hundred metres away we witnessed the unrelenting bombardment of the eastern side of the city.”

UNICEF has supplied 3.2 million Syrian children with text books and school supplies, rehabilitated schools and added thousands of temporary learning spaces. 

She added: “In my daily work I have always been in awe of the extraordinary stories of children’s determination and resilience. 

Like the 12,000 children who risked their lives to cross active conflict lines to sit for their national final exams.

“They came from hard-to-reach areas, travelled for days, through checkpoints, under the fire – full of hope and determination for a better future.

“These courageous youngsters are the teachers, nurses, doctors, architects, builders, musicians, scientists and technicians of tomorrow that will build the future Syria. 

“The children of Syria are not giving up and nor can we.”

Meanwhile, six world leaders today jointly condemned Russia for its role in the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Aleppo.

Barack Obama of the United States, Theresa May of the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel of Germany, Francois Hollande of France, Justin Trudeau of Canada and Matteo Renzi of Italy criticised the Syrian government “and its foreign backers, especially Russia”.

Their statement said: “Aleppo is being subjected to daily bombings and artillery attacks by the Syrian regime, supported by Russia and Iran.

“Hospitals and schools have not been spared. Rather, they appear to be the targets of attack in an attempt to wear people down. The images of dying children are heart-breaking.”

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