The Ruin of Syria’s Schools: Mapping Damaged and Destroyed Schools in Syria

 

 

Photo courtesy of Al-Riyadh.

 

AMMAN: One in five schools in Syria is damaged, destroyed, or has been converted into a shelter for displaced families.

Whether occupied and repurposed as a rebel base, or blasted from above in regime barrel-bomb attacks, more than 4,000 schools in Syria lie in disuse, disrepair or ruin, leaving an estimated 2.6 million children out of school–more than a third of Syria's children. *

Some students end up refugees or soldiers when bombed schools close, or are lucky to study informally, taught by volunteers lecturing out of their living rooms.

No side in this war respects the sanctity of schools in Syria. But the numbers tell a story: It is the Syrian regime executing the most lethal and destructive attacks against children’s schools.

Open Syria investigates the destruction of the Syrian educational system in this three-part report, firstly by pinpointing 22 damaged and destroyed schools in Aleppo and Damascus struck between January 2014 and May 2015, as recorded in open-source videos, photographs and satellite imagery.

Next, Open Syria documents this year’s April 12 and May 3 bombings of Sa’ad Al-Ansari and Al-Ghiras, two children’s schools in Aleppo. We also tell the story of informal, underground schools in Aleppo: With schools closed, what do children do? If they are lucky enough to study again, where do they study?

Finally, we examine open-source video and photo media to verify the attack location, as well as the munitions and attacking forces that most likely struck Sa’ad Al-Ansari on April 12.

I. Mapping Damaged and Destroyed Schools in Syria

Open Syria only records attacks in our interactive map for which we have precise location data. To identify the coordinates of damaged and destroyed schools in Syria, for which addresses or on-the-ground contacts are rare, we scoured satellite imagery of Syrian cities, suburbs and villages for matches to videos and photos of bombed-out schools.

We identified 22 damaged and destroyed schools in Aleppo and Damascus struck between January 2014 and May 2015, as recorded in open-source videos, photos and satellite imagery. We verified media documenting each recorded attack, presenting a color-coded damage assessment ranging from “moderate” to “severe” and “destroyed.”

Of the 22 verified attacks against children’s schools in Aleppo and Damascus, Open Syria concludes regime air and artillery forces are responsible for all schools assessed as “destroyed,” in addition to at least 60 percent of attacks killing five people or more.

The below map, best viewed in Chrome, maps damaged and destroyed schools in Syria. It also tells the stories of three schools in Aleppo and Damascus, where dozens of children died.

We welcome any additional information or corrections, ideally accompanied by precise location data.

Warning: The images in this map, and the remainder of this report, are disturbing. 

To view (and share) a full-screen version of the map, click here.

Click the circled “i” information icon to learn about this interactive map. Then click any colored-coded point to learn more about an attack. Click “More Media” to access verified videos and photos of an attack. To see school attacks in the Aleppo countryside, or to the south in Damascus, zoom out and drag the map to whichever place you would like to look at closer.

Open Syria also investigates three school bombings in Aleppo and Damascus, ordered by our three-tier damage assessment scale. Click or swipe the black bar at the bottom of the map to see each school. To read the school’s story, click the circled “i” icon in the upper right-hand corner. 

 

II. The Destruction of Sa’ad Al-Ansari and Al-Ghiras: Eyewitness Accounts

Sa’ad Al-Ansari

Location: Sa’ad Al-Ansari School, Al-Ansari Neighborhood, Aleppo

Coordinates: 36°10'45.65"N,  37° 7'56.89"E

April 12, 2015, 11:20 AM: Bayan Falaja and Alia Haji Hassan, teachers at Sa’ad Al-Ansari School, finish their morning class. They sit, chatting, in a small teacher's break room, a window facing the school playground. Fatima Al-Jumea and Hadil Mohammed Sa'ad, also teachers at the school, stand by the break-room window. Other teachers mill about.

Eyewitnesses say a helicopter- or jet-borne missile strikes a half-built apartment block to the school's east. The projectile disintegrates inside, yet its parts–an unexploded warhead and casing fragments–continue on to Sa’ad Al-Ansari, smashing through the empty apartment block to strike the eastern corner of the schoolyard wall about 25m to the southwest.

There, the warhead detonates. Cinder block-sized bits of broken wall launch over the playground, together with missile fragments. The fragments cut through the schoolhouse.

Bayan and Alia are immediately decapitated as metal fragments punch through the walls and windows of the teacher's break room, only 37m southwest of the projectile explosion at the eastern corner of the schoolyard wall.

Shards of glass and missile enter the bodies of Fatima and Hadil. They die, falling at the feet of Bayan and Alia.

First-responder footage records Bayan and Alia, still seated, headless, covered neck-to-toe in pulverized concrete. Fatima and Hadil are on the ground, by the window.

“Body bags, body bags!” –yell the first responders.

Warning: The following video is disturbing.

First-responders wrap Bayan, Alia, Fatima and Hadil in body bags. They work quickly, as the school may be struck again. Source: “Al-Assad’s regime commits a massacre in Aleppo, Al-Ansari.” Available on YouTube. 2015. :48.

Post-attack footage records carnage wrought by fragmentation piercing the block walls of the teacher break room, killing everyone inside. The metal cuts deep holes into the concrete wall behind where Bayan, Alia, Fatima and Hadil sat and stood. Source: “The regime commits a massacre, bombing Sa’ad Al-Ansari school.” Orient News. Available on YouTube. 2015. :37.

As metal shotguns through the break room, a bit of missile casing flies over the playground. It removes the head of Athman Mohammed Amin, a student. He falls at the steps of the school’s main entrance, where his body bleeds out.

Abdullah Jizmati loses a foot to shrapnel as he runs to class. Flying metal, concrete and glass cut down three more students–Mahmoud Abu Bekr, Abd Al-Rahman Nasf Ratl and Abd Al-Aziz Amin. Mahmoud and Abd Al-Rahman are both gut shot. Abd Al-Aziz, a first grader, gets hurt in the chest. He dies at a hospital in Turkey.

The school perimeter wall is partly destroyed. The teacher's break room, filled with the four dead, lies ruined and littered with debris. Another classroom is wrecked, with only broken glass, concrete dust and blood left inside.

* *

Al-Ghiras

Location: Al-Ghiras Kindergarten, Saif Al-Dawla Neighborhood, Aleppo

Coordinates: 36°11'1.19"N, 37° 7'54.24"E

May 3, 2015: Children are reading the morning prayers at Al-Ghiras. Students from another neighborhood school, Al-Rija’, are taking a test in a different room.

“We heard a helicopter overhead. I tried to make my students laugh, anything I could to distract them, as I never thought they’d hit a kindergarten,” a teacher at Al-Ghiras told Open Syria.

Seconds later, a barrel bomb fell on the school.

“Right then, I lost all feeling. Everything flew across the room. I remember dirt on my face, and wiping my eyes to see blood all over the room,” she said.

Regime barrel bombs destroyed a kindergarten called Al-Ghiras, in Saif Al-Dawla neighborhood, at 36°11'1.19"N, 37° 7'54.24"E. Open Syria's project partner Humanitarian Research Services, an Amman-based consultancy specializing in remote data collection, provided the school's coordinates and post-attack photograph. Source: HRS.

Sixteen children died in the barrel-bomb attack on Al-Ghiras, with the last victim, a little girl, pulled from the rubble 14 days later.

“We knew she was missing,” Ammar A-Selmo, the head of the Civil Defense Forces in Aleppo, told Open Syria.

“For days we couldn’t find her, until a smell led us to a hard-to-reach corner of rubble… her body was twisted on itself, under smashed concrete.”

Aftermath

Ahmed Atal, a math and English teacher in Syria, runs Al-Irtiqaa, an Aleppo-based foundation that trains teachers.  The organization also runs seven schools in rebel-held neighborhoods, including Sa’ad Al-Ansari. 

“We closed Sa’ad Al-Ansari after it got bombed. But kids who used to study there would come up to me and ask me when they’re going back to class,” Atal told Open Syria.

“I couldn’t believe it. I said to myself, ‘kid, your school just got bombed.’”

Forty-one teachers taught 596 students grades one through twelve at Sa’ad Al-Ansari. It was one of the biggest schools in Aleppo. Its doors are now chained shut.

“We couldn’t take the risk of sending students back to Sa’ad Al-Ansari, so we fixed up another place, somebody’s apartment really, to hold final exams,” explained Atal.

Atal and his staff at Al-Irtiqaa did their best to help the survivors of the Sa’ad Al-Ansari bombing finish the school year on track. They condensed the curriculum, preparing the most important lectures and exams.

“Then we got together to post fliers on lamp posts, in mosques and parks, letting everybody know about the final exams. Eighty percent of the students at Sa’ad Al-Ansari showed up to take the test. We were overwhelmed.”

But Al-Irtiqaa’s living-room schools are the expected exception. Al-Irtiqaa gets the cash it needs to pay rents and salaries from humanitarian organizations. Even Atal’s relatives help, giving a little money every month.

Other informal schools–more than sixty percent of Aleppo’s approximately 130–lack external backers. These places are lucky to receive $50 dollars per month. Teachers are unpaid volunteers, and may not always show up to class. Windows are shuttered, keeping out light, or maybe spies.

“Most informal schools in Aleppo are connected one way or another to our foundation. But for the ones that aren’t, they teach what they want, when they can,” said Atal.

This is what all education in Aleppo is like now, says Atal–an informal network of apartment living rooms, mosques and basements. Teachers and parents hope going underground will spare their children’s lives.

“After the massacre at Sa’ad Al-Ansari, regime barrel bombs demolished Al-Ghiras, a kindergarten in the next-door neighborhood of Saif Al-Dawla on May 3,” said Ahmed.

“We shut down all our schools in Aleppo after that.”

III. Investigation: Who struck Sa’ad Al-Ansari?

Operations: Attack geo-location, damage assessment and weapons identification

Attack geo-location

Open Syria first geo-locates Sa’ad Al-Ansari in satellite imagery. With the exact location, approximately 3.3km southwest of the Aleppo Citadel, we match attack footage to a physical, brick-and-mortar location.

The school lies at 36°10'45.65"N,  37° 7'56.89"E in satellite imagery.

To geo-locate Sa’ad Al-Ansari, Open Syria relied on post-attack footage. In one video, uploaded to YouTube on April 12, 2015, the same day as the attack, we note (1) a curving road; (2) a black front gate; (3) two three-window towers; (4) a walled, triangular schoolyard, replete with soccer goalposts and basketball hoops; and (5) a beige-colored schoolyard wall, widening slightly, before swinging southwest, its eastern corner facing an alley squeezed between rows of half-built apartment blocks.

We identify all five features in satellite imagery at 36°10'45.65"N,  37° 7'56.89"E.

Note a curving road, a black schoolhouse gate, two three-window towers, a beige schoolyard wall, first widening, then narrowing, before cornering at a row of half-built apartment blocks to the east–all five features match at this point in satellite imagery. Source: Smart News Agency, Digital Globe, and Author.

Damage assessment

Open Syria estimates damage to Sa’ad Al-Ansari, photographed below (inset), to lie at the eastern corner of the schoolyard perimeter wall, within 10m of 36°10'45. 80"N, 37° 7'58.61"E. 

Current imagery of Sa’ad Al-Ansari is unavailable. As such, Open Syria estimates the damaged wall section, photographed above (inset), to lie within 10m of 36°10'45.80"N, 37° 7'58.61"E. Source: Digital Globe, Author.

Warhead fragmentation visibly struck the schoolhouse and perimeter wall in at least four locations. At least seven fragments entered the teacher’s break room. After passing through the bodies of four people, the metal bored deep into the walls in a shotgun-pattern of spherical and oblong impact points.

An airdropped munition, or heavy artillery shell–Open Syria cannot determine precisely which–struck within 10m of the eastern corner of the schoolyard perimeter wall. Shell fragments launched from the explosion site, peppering the schoolhouse. Open Syria assesses building damage on our three-point scale at “severe.” At least seven fragments entered the teacher’s break room, killing four people. Source: Author, Digital Globe, “The regime commits a massacre, bombing Sa’ad Al-Ansari school.” Orient News. Available on YouTube. 2015. :37.

Open Syria assesses building damage on a three-point scale at “severe.”

Weapons and attacking forces identification

Open Syria has yet to acquire identifying photographs of projectile fragments, telling precisely what–and hence who–struck Sa’ad Al-Ansari.

Definitively identifying weapon systems post-detonation is notoriously difficult. Different weapons may cause similar damage, thus confounding efforts to remotely identify an explosive devise used in a given attack without smoking-gun videos or photographs of shell fragments, casings or impact craters.

Although eyewitness accounts differ as to the quantity and type of weapon that struck Sa’ad Al-Ansari, all agree that an airdropped munition hit first–which means regime forces, the only local belligerent with airpower, bombed Sa’ad Al-Ansari.

Open Syria confirms this account, but only in part. Post-attack footage reveals facility damage and fragmentation impact points consistent with an airdropped conventional or unconventional munition. But inflicted damage, injuries and death may also match heavy artillery fire. Airframe-launched missiles, rockets and bombs rule out rebel forces. Artillery does not.

Still, Open Syria concludes it is the Syrian regime that most likely struck Sa’ad Al-Ansari, given eyewitness accounts and the fact that Al-Ansari neighborhood lies in opposition hands. It is a fitting target for marauding regime warplanes, not friendly artillery. §

“My initial limited analysis is that this is a conventional, medium capacity high explosive airdropped bomb or an improvised version dropped from an aircraft,” Richard Stevens, head of the Collective Awareness to Unexploded Ordinance (CAT-UXO), an online community of experts in the explosive ordinance disposal community, wrote in an email to Open Syria. ||

Although eyewitnesses say an air-launched, specifically thermobaric missile, hit Sa’ad Al-Ansari, CAT-UXO does not find evidence supporting that account. Missiles and rockets generally field a smaller, shaped-charge warhead, inflicting comparatively small area and fragmentation damage.

“Airdropped bombs contain large amounts of explosive and are not generally aimed, while missiles and rockets are smaller, and often contain a shaped charge in order to destroy a specific target or vehicle,” observed Stevens. 

“This did not look like a missile or rocket attack, and from my initial observations, I don’t think I see any evidence of thermobaric missile type weapons, which create huge devastation,” he added.

Finally, the attack on Sa’ad Al-Ansari devastated an apartment block approximately 20m southeast of the school’s perimeter wall. A blast demolishing reinforced concrete is more consistent with the greater explosive power of a conventional or unconventional airdropped munition. Specifically, we consider a FAB-500 M62 general-purpose bomb, a Russian-made weapon with a 213kg warhead only fielded in an airdropped capacity by the regime. Δ

The attack on Sa’ad Al-Ansari nearly destroyed an apartment block approximately 20m southeast of the demolished eastern corner of the schoolyard. Note the reinforced concrete reduced to rubble, and a vehicle aflame in the background–damages more consistent with the greater explosive power of an airdropped conventional or unconventional munition. Source: “The regime commits a massacre, bombing Sa’ad Al-Ansari school.” Orient News. Available on YouTube. 2015. 1:09.

Notes

* On the number of schools destroyed, damaged, or repurposed, see “Syria’s Children: A Lost Generation?” UNICEF. 2013. For an estimate of Syrian children out of school, see "Syrian Children Under Siege." UNICEF.

Open Syria translates eyewitness accounts detailing the bombing of Sa’ad Al-Ansari provided in a report by the Al-Irtiqaa Foundation, entitled “The Massacre of Sa’ad Al-Ansari.” Al-Irtiqaa. Available on Facebook. 2015.

Open Syria draws its three-point damage assessment scale, ranging from “moderate” to “severe” and “destroyed” from a United Nations Operational Satellite Applications Program (UNOSAT) satellite imagery analysis assessing damage to educational facilities in the Gaza Strip following the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict, also known as Operation Protective Edge. For the analysis, see “Educational Facilities Damage Assessment in Gaza Strip, Occupied Palestinian Territory.” UNOSAT. 2014.

§ Open Syria refers to a battle map courtesy of archicivilians.com to determine area control in Aleppo at the time of the attack against Sa’ad Al-Ansari, entitled “Map: The Military Situation in Aleppo City After 3 Weeks of the Regime Failed Offensive, Syria, March 10, 2015.” Although the map was compiled about one month before the attack on Sa’ad Al-Ansari, Open Syria has not verified news or social media reporting the capture of Al-Ansari neighborhood by regime forces.

|| Email correspondence between Joseph Adams at Open Syria and Richard Stevens at CAT-UXO between May 17 and May 19, 2015.

Δ Reinforced concrete collapses under approximately 15 psi of blast over-pressure. To calculate the weight in kilograms, and hence approximate weapon type, of a warhead capable of collapsing or severely damaging reinforced concrete within an 18m radius, i.e. the estimated damage radius at Sa’ad Al-Ansari and adjacent apartment blocks, we refer to the following formula:

RL = D * W 1/3

Where RL is the lethal radius of the warhead, W is the weight of the warhead in kilograms, and D is the lethal radius for a 1kg TNT warhead, which for 15 psi, is approximately 3m.

Thus, 18 = 3 * W 1/3, or 216 kg.

The hypothesized warhead weight roughly corresponds to a FAB-500 M62 general-purpose bomb, a weapon with a 213kg warhead only fielded in an airdropped capacity by the regime.

For warhead estimation methods, see Itzkowitz Shifrinson, Joshua R. and Miranda Priebe. “A Crude Threat: The Limits of an Iranian Missile Campaign against Saudi Arabian Oil.” International Security 36 (2011): 167-201. For FAB-500 technical specifications, see “FAB M62.” WeaponSystems.net.

Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.