September 14, 2018

UN takes action to protect schools from being attacked in Idlib

Members of the Syria Civil Defence, or White Helmets, show children in Idlib what to do in the event of an attack

Photo credit: Civil Defence Idlib

The co-ordinates of schools and hospitals have been shared amid fears of a massive military assault on the rebel-held Syrian city.

It seems outrageous that anyone has to take action to prevent schools from being bombed. But that's exactly what the United Nations has just done.

The UN gave the GPS co-ordinates of schools, hospitals and other protected sites in Idlib to the government's Russian allies, along with Turkey and the US-led coalition - as fears grow of a massive military assault on the rebel-held Syrian city.

Almost 40,000 people have fled from Idlib province. UNICEF is worried that air strikes, bombings and ground operations could put schools and the lives of children in jeopardy.

“Thousands of children in Idlib have been forced to leave their homes multiple times and are now living in overcrowded makeshift shelters, with food, water and medicine in dangerously short supply,” said Henrietta Fore, UNICEF Executive Director.

“Our request is simple - protect children. Give us safe, sustained and unconditional access to them. Allow and enable those who want to leave to do so safely and voluntarily.”

A seven-year-old child stands in front of her damaged school in IdlIb, Syria

Photo credit: UNICEF

Schools in Idlib have been opening earlier to give students more time in class. But UNICEF spokesperson Christophe Boulierac said: "Schooling is often suspended because of insecurity, shelling and violence.”

More than four million Syrian students have been heading back to school this month in areas under government control across the country, the education ministry said. But another two million are out of school.

Schools are supposed to be safe places for children to learn. 81 countries have now signed the Safe Schools Declaration - a commitment to secure schools and prevent attacks and military occupation of education buildings.

Theirworld is campaigning for all permanent members of the United Nations Security Council to back the declaration and send out a message that children should be safe when they are at school.

If there is a major assault by government forces on Idlib, many schools will shut rather than put children at risk.

Essam Al-Khateb, executive director of the Kesh Malek civil society organisation - which runs 30 schools around northern Syria - told Middle East Eye it wouldn't "risk student's lives assembling them at school, which is a number one target for the regime and Russia".

He added: "'The new school year has just begun and we are afraid that in this year also will be forced to halt the educational process because we don't have safe places to hide students during the attacks."

15-year-old Nasme Ashe said that repeatedly escaping from one bombarded rebel enclave to another had seriously interfered with her education.

"I should be in ninth grade now but because of the attacks and war since 2011, I stopped going to school each year for many months," she said.

"In between 2011 and 2013 I couldn't go to school because of the siege and schools were all closed in Eastern Ghouta back then."

There are fears of an all-out military assault on this final stronghold of the rebels

Photo credit: UNICEF / Al-Issa

Many schools in Eastern Ghouta have been reopening after years of siege and violence.

After a succession of government victories in recent months, President Bashar al-Assad has now set his sights on Idlib. His forces and their Russian allies have been stepping up bombardment of the densely-populated province.

Three million people live in the area - about half of them already displaced by the brutal seven-year war and others heavily dependent on humanitarian aid to survive.

A major military operation in Idlib is expected to pose a humanitarian nightmare because there is no nearby opposition territory left in Syria where people could be evacuated to.

"We are in no way ready for the worst-case scenario, should we see three million people headed to the Turkish border," said UN's Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis, Panos Moumtzis.

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