Regime shell hits east Aleppo’s only orphanage: ‘Psychologically, the coming days will be very hard on them’

Asmar al-Halabi is accustomed to bombs. The director of Moumayazoun, the only orphanage in encircled east Aleppo, tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier that “after five years of bombs, we are used to them.”

But Sunday was different.

Al-Halabi was at the orphanage on Sunday when a regime shell struck the building. “I heard children’s screams and crying from downstairs, so I rushed to where they were.”

After the attack, the director says he found the orphanage’s 50 children, ages three to 15, in shock. “One child was huddling in the corner of the room,” al-Halabi says. “Another was so scared he wet himself, and another was so frightened that his entire body was shaking.

Two children, now recovering in a nearby hospital, were struck and injured by shards from the blast. The orphanage’s food supplies were destroyed. “We’re worried we won’t be able to fix everything,” says al-Halabi, who is working on moving the remaining children to relative safety in the building’s basement.

 Minutes after Sunday’s bombing. Photo courtesy of Asmar al-Halabi via Facebook

Sunday’s blast comes despite Russia’s promise Monday that a “humanitarian ceasefire” would continue in regime encircled eastern Aleppo, barring a rebel offensive to break the siege.

The siege, as well as airstrikes and fighting in Syria’s largest city, have had disastrous effects on its children. Doctors Without Borders counts at least 114 children killed and 321 wounded since September 2015, when regime and Russian forces launched an offensive to seize Aleppo’s rebel-held east.

Q: Where were the children during the bombing?

The first time the orphanage was hit, on October 31, we moved all the children to the clubhouse we have in the basement. Unfortunately, on Sunday the children were upstairs when the bomb hit, and they saw everything.

Q: Describe what happened.

The children were inside when the bomb fell. I was in my office on the second floor of the orphanage when I heard children’s screams and crying from downstairs. I rushed to where they were, and they were terrified.

One child was huddling in the corner of the room. Another was so scared he wet himself, and another was so frightened that his entire body was shaking.

Q: How much of the building was destroyed or damaged? Can it be repaired?

Most of the damage from the shell was around the food pantry, which we set up because of the siege and our lack of food supplies. The bomb destroyed about half of those supplies [that we stockpiled].

There was also a car that belonged to the orphanage. The bomb damaged it beyond repair.

Right now, I’m working with one of the employees to figure out how much of the damage can be repaired. We’re worried we won’t be able to fix everything.

Q: How many of the children were hurt?

Two children were injured by shards from the explosion. We immediately took them to the nearest hospital.

Right now, they aren’t doing very well.  Psychologically, the coming days will be very hard on them, because they are terrified they’ll being attacked again.

Q: How are the siege and the war affecting the children in the orphanage?

Before the war, children could cope with losing one of their parents. Now, they are forced to handle the loss of both parents, in addition to the siege and bombs. Whenever they hear any airplanes, they get terrified.

Q: Talk about some of the children you can’t save.

We accepted two children aged 15, and they were from among the street children found in Aleppo. After two days passed with them inside the orphanage, they stole the personal wallet of the tutors and then they escaped.

The consequence of this behavior is that we are convinced that we are unable to provide anything for children like those because the child of this age has already arrived at their personality and we are unable to have authority over their behaviors or to change what has been happening to them over the past five years.

It is impossible to calculate the number of homeless children in besieged Aleppo, but their number is in the hundreds. 

Q: How many teachers work in the orphanage? How did they help the children during the bombing?

We have 15 teachers on staff, who work in shifts around the clock.

Because of the daily bombings in Aleppo, we have a contingency plan for these types of bombings. If there is a bomb close to or inside the orphanage, we move all of the children downstairs into the basement.

The teachers must never show the children that they are afraid, and they must always smile and act cheerfully. The rule is to keep doing daily activities such as cooking and playing, and to forget everything that is going on outside the orphanage.

Q: How is the orphanage staff coping with the bombing?

We’re adults. After five years of bombs on Aleppo, we are used to them.

To me, my most important duty is to protect the children in the orphanage from the bombs and the siege, and from the violence of the regime. The regime forces don’t differentiate between orphanages, hospitals or schools.

Q: As the director of the only orphanage in east Aleppo, do you consider your facility a safe place for the children?

These children have lost everything. They lost affection, and they lost their relatives to both bombs and arrest.

Their lives inside the orphanage are better than staying out on the streets.

I work 12 hours per day in the orphanage, and I’m constantly afraid that bombs will hit it. The responsibility [for their safety] is on my shoulders, and the most important thing to me, hands down, is the children.

[That’s why] I’m now working to move the children to the basement, so I can keep them safe from the bombings. 

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Sarah Abaid

Sarah studied nutrition at Qalamoun University and moved to Jordan in 2012 to complete her Master’s degree in Amman.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston in 2016 and previously reported for The Daily Star in Beirut.