AMMAN: At least 50,000 students are out of school in northwestern Syria for the first time since the war began, education officials tell Syria Direct, as a Turkish-backed offensive on Kurdish-held Afrin canton forces hundreds of schools to close.
“Students from the preschool years through university are being kept from an education,” Mihemed Reşit, co-head of the Afrin Education Commission—which oversees educational facilities in the canton—told Syria Direct.
More than 50,000 students across 318 schools, 16 institutes and one university are out of school in Afrin, the education official said.
The Education Commission officially closed schools in Afrin canton and the adjacent Tel Rifaat region—territories in northwestern Aleppo province administered by a Kurdish-led Self-Administration—on January 28, said Reşit. “Indiscriminate bombing” forced the closures, he said.
The decision to close Afrin’s schools came one week after Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels supported by Turkish troops, artillery and airstrikes launched an assault on the canton.
Ankara’s ongoing Operation Olive Branch aims to oust the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) from Afrin. The YPG is the military wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) that leads the local Self-Administration.
Students in Afrin city demonstrate against Operation Olive Branch on February 19. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.
Turkey views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a bloody insurgency inside Turkey for decades.
Since Operation Olive Branch began on January 20, “aerial, artillery and rocket shelling” killed at least 112 civilians in Afrin, including 23 children, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. At least 14 students are among the dead, Reşit, of the Afrin Education Commission, told Syria Direct.
Turkish officials deny that civilians have died in the Turkish-backed campaign on Afrin. “To date, no civilians have died or even been hurt in Turkish Armed Forces operations,” Turkey’s deputy prime minister said this past Thursday.
Fighting between the YPG and Turkish-backed forces damaged at least 32 Afrin schools over the past two months, according to education official Reşit. On February 19, shelling “destroyed” a high school in the town of Jandrees, he said.
Syria Direct could not independently verify Reşit’s claims. Local, state-run and international media also reported damage to Afrin schools in February during the Turkish-backed operation.
Before Operation Olive Branch began in January, Kurdish-majority Afrin region had seen little of the violence experienced by other parts of Syria over the course of the country’s seven-year war.
A high school reportedly damaged by shelling in Jandrees, Afrin on February 19. Photo courtesy of Mihemed Reşit.
Syrian government forces withdrew from Afrin in 2012, after which the YPG assumed control. Over the following years, the Kurdish-led militia exchanged sporadic artillery fire with Turkish forces across the border but large-scale military operations and attacks by the Islamic State—such as those that plagued other majority-Kurdish regions of Syria’s north—were unheard of. Tens of thousands of people from more violent parts of the country took refuge in the isolated pocket.
“We had no plan for an attack like this, since [Afrin] was safe and secure,” Education Commission head Reşit said. “This is the first time that schools have closed.”
Shayar Muhammad Omar, a fourth-grade student from the town of Raju in western Afrin canton, was on midterm break from his school when Operation Olive Branch began.
“When the bombing began, we thought it would only last two or three days,” he told Syria Direct.
But more than one month after the operation began, Shayar and his family are displaced, living in Afrin city, where they fled after his town and school were bombed, he said.
“Now there’s no studying or anything,” he said. “We spend our time with friends out in the streets.”
Students in Afrin city demonstrated last week in protest of Turkey’s ongoing operation and alleged attacks on schools.
In a video posted to YouTube on February 19 by Kurdish outlet Hawar News, hundreds of students can be seen marching through the streets of Afrin’s largest city holding banners that read: “Don’t destroy our schools.”
Students in Shera, Afrin demonstrate against Turkish attacks on February 5. Photo courtesy of Hawar News.
“Why have they postponed our education?” one teenage girl asks while speaking at the event. “We just want to be free to learn,” she says.
But while Afrin canton faces the brunt of shelling, airstrikes and ground fighting during Operation Olive Branch, violence is also spilling over into neighboring parts of Turkey.
In southern Turkey’s Hatay and Kilis provinces, Turkish officials say nearly 100 rocket attacks originating in Afrin killed at least seven civilians and injured 125 since January 20, Turkish state-run Anadolu Agency reported. On January 31, five rockets reportedly hit the border town of Reyhanli, killing a 17-year-old high school student.
In several southern districts of Hatay and Kilis, the mid-term school break was extended for an additional week in mid-February, Turkish outlet Daily Sabah reported. It was not clear whether the extension was related to cross-border shelling by the YPG.