By Ole Solvang, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Ole Solvang is an emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. The views expressed are the writer’s own.
Last week, life changed for 12-year-old “Aziza.” She had just arrived at her grandparents’ apartment in Aleppo with her family when she heard the sound of a jet and then a huge explosion.
“Suddenly, it was all covered in dust,” Aziza said. “I heard my aunt screaming – she was calling for survivors, and then some men took me and my little sister out of the rubble. The wall and stairs were gone. They handed us over one to the other.” Standing in the rubble of the destroyed house, Aziza, still in shock, told me two days after the attack that she and her younger sister survived only because they were playing in one of the interior rooms.
Four government bombs dropped on the Sukkari neighborhood on April 7 killed her mother, twin brother and two other close relatives, and seriously injured her father. Aziza and her family had already moved to a different neighborhood, but had come back briefly to get some of their belongings. Speaking to relatives and neighbors we collected information about 17 civilians who died in this attack, but there could be more since nobody has a complete list of casualties yet.
Life in Aleppo is not easy. People here have suffered from shortages of food, electricity and running water, and there has been little humanitarian assistance. The long, cold winter months were particularly rough. The only possible consolation was that there were fewer air strikes because of the cloudy, rainy weather. The government’s jets only seem to fly – and drop bombs – when the sky is blue.
With the end of winter, people are struggling to return to normal. Many have returned from surrounding villages or camps in Turkey or on the border. Unlike during past visits, this time I saw children playing football in the street, women shopping for produce in the outdoor markets, and at some point I was even stuck in a traffic jam in one of Aleppo’s main intersections. Numerous towns in northern Syria are similarly trying to return to a routine after fierce fighting forced government forces to withdraw several months ago. In many towns, local residents are trying to set up local governing councils, re-open schools, and appoint legal councils to deal with day-to-day disputes.
But the attempts to return to normal life are regularly disrupted in the most brutal and unpredictable way – strikes from government helicopters and fighter jets that kill and injure hundreds of people sometimes destroy entire blocks of houses and sow fear and despair. In many cases, there appear to be no possible military targets in the neighborhood, and the attacks appear indiscriminate or even as if they are deliberate attacks on civilians, both unlawful under international law. A Human Rights Watch report issued last week documents 59 of these unlawful air strikes in northern Syria. They started in July and are still going on, seemingly intensifying with sunny weather.
Some of the air strikes we documented seem to have deliberately targeted civilians. For example, repeated attacks on bakeries strongly indicate that the government intended to hit them. Hospitals seem to have been targeted as well. Government jets struck eight times on or near a main emergency hospital in the city of Aleppo, eventually putting the hospital out of service. Other attacks we documented also took place near a hospital.
Attacks were unlawful in other ways as well. We identified 119 locations across Syria where the government used at least 156 cluster bombs, which are banned by a majority of countries in the world. The government used incendiary bombs, which produce extremely painful burns, often down to the bone, and can also cause respiratory damage. And in most cases, the government used large unguided bombs that it was not able to target precisely. In the vast majority of the cases we documented, the strikes caused damage only to civilians and civilian property. Even when potential military targets were in the area, they weren’t damaged. For example, in one town I counted eight strikes around a house used by opposition fighters, but not a single one struck the house itself.
The people I interviewed in the Sukkari neighborhood feel abandoned. They told me that the international community is standing by as the Syrian government kills its own people. Indeed, the U.N. Security Council, blocked by Russia and China, has failed to meet its responsibility to protect the Syrian people from serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law such as by imposing an arms embargo on the Syrian government. But the Security Council’s impasse should not prevent concerned governments from stepping up their efforts to pressure the Syrian government to end these violations.
In the meantime, the people of Aleppo will continue to pray for rain and clouds in the hope that it will keep the fighter jets away.