What we saw in Syria
September 5th, 2012
10:46 AM ET

What we saw in Syria

By Ole Solvang, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Ole Solvang is researcher with the Emergencies Division at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are his own.  You can follow him on Twitter: @olesolvang

After a month investigating human rights violations in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo, we were hoping that the last day of our mission would be relatively quiet. It didn’t turn out that way.

We started the day at an emergency hospital in the opposition-controlled area of Aleppo city. As a nurse listed the names and ages of civilians who had been killed in artillery and aerial attacks in Aleppo city the last couple of days, we heard a strike. An artillery shell hit a house just 200 meters from the hospital, and within minutes, the wounded started pouring in. Someone brought in a little boy. There was nothing the doctors could do – half of his head was blown away.

We visited several sites of attacks around the city, speaking to witnesses and victims, examining the sites, looking at the remnants of ammunition, and taking photos. As we returned to the hospital in the afternoon, we suddenly saw people looking warily at the sky, and minutes later heard a fighter jet. We ran for cover just in time – a rocket slammed into a building two houses over from the hospital, collapsing the top floors. Five little kids, all covered in blood and dust, were brought into the hospital, while the neighbors were struggling to reach others under the ruins. Later, we learned that the attack killed two people and wounded 17, 10 of them children.

That day, aerial attacks continued outside Aleppo city. Just minutes before we returned to Marea, a town in northern Aleppo, a fighter jet dropped two bombs in the middle of the town, destroying several homes. Nobody was inside, but several children playing in the street were injured.

Opposition forces recently drove the Syrian military out of most of the northern Aleppo countryside and about half of Aleppo city. For the last month, the two sides have taken turns advancing and retreating, a couple of streets at a time, with neither party making much progress.

As part of their combat strategy, government forces have attacked areas away from the frontlines, using artillery, helicopters and fighter jets. We have documented that many of these attacks have killed and wounded dozens of civilians.

More from GPS: 'They burned my heart'

Parties to a conflict are, of course, not allowed to deliberately target or indiscriminately attack civilians. Sometimes, civilians might be killed in lawful attacks on military objectives. But that does not seem to have been the case with many of the recent attacks that we have documented in Aleppo.

During an investigation of artillery and aerial attacks like these, one of our top priorities is to look for potentially legitimate military objectives – opposition military bases, checkpoints, troop movements, weapons’ depots – which might have been the intended target. We examine the sites and interview witnesses and local residents who can tell us exactly what was going on before the attacks.

In some cases, we were able to identify potentially legitimate targets. In the town of Azaz, for example, an aerial attack that hit a residential area might have been intended to strike an old Baath party building that opposition military and civilian leaders were using. The building, however, was located 300 meters from where the bombs landed. If the Baath party building indeed had been the target, the fighter jet completely missed it, destroying instead dozens of civilian homes, killing at least 46 and injuring more than 100.

Other attacks, such as the fighter jet attack that struck a house close to the hospital on the last day of our mission, didn’t seem to be targeting any legitimate military objective. We walked past the house five minutes before it was hit. No opposition troops were there and there was nothing in the debris afterward to suggest military activity.

Most disconcertingly, however, we found evidence suggesting that some of the attacks targeted civilians. In the course of three weeks in August, government forces attacked at least 10 bakeries in Aleppo province, sometimes killing and injuring dozens of civilians who had lined up to buy bread. In one of the deadliest attacks, on August 21, on a bakery in the Bab al-Hadid area in Aleppo city, a helicopter had been circling overhead for hours. When a line formed in front of the bakery as it was about to open in the early evening, a helicopter dropped a bomb, which killed at least 20 people standing in line, witnesses told us. One of the witnesses we spoke to gave us a video that he filmed right after the attack, showing dozens of people lying on the ground, some with missing arms and legs. We could see no weapons. It seemed that everybody wore civilian clothes, as opposed to camouflage clothes and ammunition vests usually worn by fighters, supporting witness accounts that all the victims were civilians. Reckless indiscriminate attacks and deliberate attacks on civilians are war crimes.

Thousands of people in Aleppo have fled their neighborhoods, or even the country, fearing these attacks. But many are still there. While some neighborhoods and towns are almost completely deserted, others are bustling with life.

Local activist groups say that August has been the deadliest month since the beginning of the uprising, with more than 4,000 civilians killed. Increased use of artillery and aerial attacks, some of which have been recklessly indiscriminate or deliberately targeted against civilians, have contributed to the high death toll. The international community should send a clear message to the Syrian government that such war crimes will not be tolerated.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (186 Responses)
  1. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Mayhem around the globe is work of hindu Jew's, criminal self centered, secular to undermine truth absolute, hinduism, criminality of hindu's deniers of truth absolute, fooling humanity to kill each other under cover of hinduism, corruption of truth absolute called religions, for more visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/ Time is now to get rid of hindu Jew's criminal secular s pretending to be truth absolute god of humanity.

    September 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm | Reply
  2. What We Saw In Indian Occupied Kashmir

    "Amnesty International is calling for an impartial investigation into mass graves found in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Sunday, India's Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission released a report saying a three-year investigation had uncovered 2,156 unidentified bodies in 38 sites in the region. In a statement released Monday, Amnesty International asked Indian officials to allow impartial forensic experts to carry out a thorough investigation of the skeletal remains. The rights group also urged Indian authorities to ensure the safety of the witnesses who gave statements to police during the investigation. Indian authorities conducted the inquiry in response to allegations that Indian security forces have committed rights abuses in fighting a more than two-decade-long Muslim separatist insurgency. Rights activists say at least 8,000 people have gone missing in Indian Kashmir since the separatists began fighting in 1989 for independence from Hindu-majority India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. Rebel attacks and Indian government crackdowns have killed at least 50,000 people.

    September 6, 2012 at 1:41 pm | Reply
    • Baylor

      I want an imediate solution to Kashmir problem in India. There should be an immediate election and let people decide. That is the american way. Drone the hindus if they don't like it.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm | Reply
    • Charlie

      Shame on these Indian Hindus. Today these Indians refused to do DNA tests to identify those murdered by Indian Army in Kashmir. I say deport all indians from America.

      September 6, 2012 at 7:12 pm | Reply
  3. What We Saw In Indian Occupied Kashmir

    NEW YORK: Renowned Indian activist and novelist Arundhati Roy has decried the silence of the international community over the continued “brutal Indian occupation of Kashmir” and said Kashmiris should be given the right to self-determination……
    She said so little was known about the atrocities being committed by more than half a million Indian troops, the continuing repression and indignities let loose on Kashmiri men, women and children.
    More than 700,000 troops were concentrated in the tiny valley, with checkpoints at every nook and corner of Kashmiri towns and cities. The huge Indian presence, she added, was in sharp contrast with 160,000 US troops in Iraq.
    Ms Roy alleged that Indian army or security personnel were killing young children and women some of them pregnant.

    September 6, 2012 at 1:46 pm | Reply
    • Baylor

      This problem has been ongoing for over 70 years !!! Enough is enough. How long does it take to hold elections?. Just like we do in Puerto Rico LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE VIA POLLS WHAT THEY WANT.....INDEPENDENCE OR WHAT.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Jimmy

      Kick down Gandhi's statue in New York. Put it in a pigpen.

      September 6, 2012 at 7:14 pm | Reply
  4. What We Saw In Indian Occupied Kashmir

    NEW YORK: Renowned Indian activist and novelist Arundhati Roy has decried the silence of the international community over the continued “brutal Indian occupation of Kashmir” and said Kashmiris should be given the right to self-determination.
    “Kashmir is one of the most protracted and bloody occupations in the world — and one of the most ignored,” she told a large audience at the Asia Society during a discussion on “Kashmir — a case for freedom”.
    Under the Indian military rule in Kashmir, Ms Roy said, freedom of speech was non-existent and human rights abuses were routine. Elections were rigged and the press controlled.
    She said the lives of Kashmiris were made miserable by gun-totting security personnel who harassed and terrorised people with impunity, adding that disappearances were almost a daily occurrence as also kidnapping, arrests, fake encounters and torture. Mass graves have been discovered and the conscience of the world remains unstirred……
    The apathy towards Kashmir, especially in the western world, Ms Roy said, was because of their pursuit of commercial interests in India where they were more eager to “sell their goods than human rights”……..

    September 6, 2012 at 1:47 pm | Reply
    • Baylor


      September 6, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
      • Charlie

        I cant stand these hindus for the evil they represent

        September 6, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  5. SpeakTruth

    We watched Saddam's neck snap.

    We watched Gaddafi get beaten to death

    Hopefully we will see Assad get skinned alive.

    While Asma watches while they play their favorite Phil Collins song. Then spare her life so she can live with that image every single day until she dies, just like they did to so many othe Syrians.

    September 6, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Reply
    • SpeakTruth

      EDIT: Not hopefully, WHEN.

      September 6, 2012 at 1:55 pm | Reply
  6. Say You Say Me

    INDIA: Between two Deities: KALI & PANCHALI

    The problem with India is that is built on a system of cultural and societal values based on Hinduism which is a cult. Nations built on a cult seldom survive in the long run. Now just take a look at these two Hindu goddesses and the destruction and lack of morality they represent.

    Goddess Kali's statue stands naked astride the inanimate body of the Hindu deity Shiva, tongue stuck out with blood dripping from fang-like teeth. She holds a noose, a skull-topped staff, a blood-encrusted sword and a severed head. Disgusting, to say the least. Would you want your kids growing up with such inspiration?

    Meanwhile, goddess Panchali was married to five brothers. Which one would become the legitimate father of his child should she have one? Dr Charles (renowned author and an authority on India) says that instances of incest are common in Hindu scriptures. Decadent ! Immoral !

    Talk about being between a rock and a hard place!!

    September 6, 2012 at 1:52 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      Visit http://www.limitisthetruth.com/ to learn more hinduism, criminality of hindu's criminals and deny truth absolute to make humanity their gentile, slaves for ever, hinduism, illegality way of hindu Magi's, criminal tricksters to deny human equality granted by truth absolute.

      September 6, 2012 at 2:13 pm | Reply
    • Charlie

      No wonder these Indian Hindus are so screwed up.

      September 6, 2012 at 7:09 pm | Reply
  7. AgrippaMT

    Like milllions of Syrians, we Americans look forward to hearing that Bashar Al-Assad has been assassinated. May it happen soon.

    September 6, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Reply
    • Patrick

      There will be no congratulations until I see what is coming next?
      If other arab spring/winter countries are any example, it will be the same.
      Hell is coming to Syria, this is just the beginning.

      September 6, 2012 at 10:18 pm | Reply
  8. Irgun


    Please do not shed crocodile tears for the Syrian people caught between Assad and the
    The jihadist from Libia, Qatar, Al Qaida and British,French,Israeli and ours special forces because we
    fund and staged this fiasco.
    Are we there for democracy working with countries as Saudi Arabia Qatar and Bahrein who recently
    committed bigger per capita massacres and where Christian and women rights are non existing compared
    With Syria?

    Nobody reports on the massacres,executions and bombing done by the rebels and Al Qaida
    embedded within the civilians like in Faludja and the foreign death squads ?
    We all know the countries involved have a lot of money to spent on PR

    September 6, 2012 at 11:13 pm | Reply
  9. Tony

    Seems the US gets blamed whether it gets involved or doesn't.
    That being the case, I am just as happy it is not American servicemen getting killed for more people that could not care less that they are there.
    Syrians want to kill each other off, let them.
    Foreign fighters too, Iranians, Hezbollah, Al Qaida, Muslim brotherhood, the whole lot of them. Everyone will be better off when they are all dead.

    September 7, 2012 at 12:02 am | Reply
  10. Bob

    Sadly, more or less whats new or different to any war in the past. WWII – carpet bombing of civilian areas. Vietnam – bombing of civilian areas. Iraq – case in point Fallujah where 40% of city reduced to rubble, and ~ 6000 civilians killed in allied reduction of that city ( also with few lightly armed rebels/bad guys, whatever in it – but zero journalists or human rights watch representatives for unknown reasons given that they had free access one assumes ). Drone strikes – widely reported that when US implements a drone strike very often the so called militants killed are actually civilians ( practice has been dubbed crowd killing offshore of the US ), and these are even intentionally targeted, so absent even the merit of being coincidental. Bottom line, a condition driven and legitimized by our own ( and others ) hypocrisy which dictates that when we do it is unavoidable collateral damage, when our opponents do it it is an act too horrible to contemplate. Net effect? No universally applicable and accepted measure of what is acceptable/unacceptable can exist or be implemented.

    September 7, 2012 at 10:03 am | Reply
  11. Free Syrian

    Obama administration supports the massacres in Syria because the Obama administration banned countries such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to send anti-aircraft to protect the innocent from aerial bombardment!

    September 9, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
  12. Reprinted With Permission ©

    It is no secret that Hitler and his Nazi cronies sought inspiration from Indian extremist groups including the branding of his Nazi Party by adopting the Swastika, a traditionally Hindu symbol and representation of Hindu god Ganesha, as its marketing tool. The thesis being that like the Norwegian massacre, the Jewish holocaust orchestrated by Hitler was inspired by the inherently violent cult of Indian Hindus and the manifesto of its then extremist/terrorist groups still in existence today. These groups are now the successors to and carrying out the vision of Al Qaeda all over the world.

    September 10, 2012 at 10:15 am | Reply
  13. Uwakwe

    I am a Nigerian Citizen I wonder why the world over, the great America could not repeat what He did in Libya by NATO
    to deliver the innocent citizens of Syria from their Leader who has turn out to be a blood sucker, sucking the blood of his country men and women and children. Where is Liberian Leader today? I mean Charles Tailor, He is facing War crime, he will die in Jail, the Syrian Leader should know he will not escape this heartless man inhumanity to man, where is Saddam Husein today? Where is Egyptian President today, Where is Mgbagbo of Code Voure today Nemeses must surely cut Syrian President, the innocent blood will hunt him and his generation even in their graves Isha Allah Amen.

    September 11, 2012 at 7:19 am | Reply
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