On May 3, Muhammad al-Anadani, a 30-year-old Arabic language teacher was in a school in the besieged city of Aleppo when he heard the telltale whistle of a barrel bomb.
He was thrown violently across the room, but was uninjured. When he was able to stand, Muhammad found out that at least twelve people, including nine children and two teachers had been killed at the Center for Children’s Training and Rehabilitation in the Sayf al-Dawla neighborhood.
Few people live to describe what it’s like to experience a direct hit on a building by a barrel bomb, especially in Aleppo, where opposition-held areas have long been the target of indiscriminate aerial bombardment by government forces.
As a teacher, Anadani has also been an eyewitness to the devastating effect the conflict has had on the education of the country’s next generation. In the opposition-held part of Aleppo, it is estimated that only 6 percent of all children are still attending any type of classes.
Across the country, the violence has kept 3.5 million Syrian children out of school and more than 3,400 schools have either been destroyed or damaged, according to Save the Children.
To cope, some Syrians have created makeshift classrooms in basements and monitor the pattern of aerial bombings to figure out the safest time to conduct class.
Syria Deeply spoke with Anadani about the barrel bomb attack and wider destruction of the country’s education system.
Syria Deeply: Would you describe the first moments of the attack? What did you do?
Muhammad al-Anadani: It was recess time and I was at the administration office. I heard people in the street screaming “Be careful! They are dropping!” We didn’t realize that they would target us. We were sort of calm, but the sound of the barrel bomb was getting closer, and then we heard a terrifying explosion. The whole school shook and I flew to the other side of the room. I heard the kids screaming. I rushed out of the office and what I saw was horrifying. For a moment, I thought that everyone was killed. Then I rushed to help paramedics and get the survivors out of school.
As I learned later, nine kids and two teachers were killed. There were so many people injured that the ambulances could not take all of them. A couple of people walking in the area were also killed.
Syria Deeply: Was this the first time the neighborhood of Sayf al-Dawla was targeted?
Muhammad al-Anadani: The regime wants to empty the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo, and punish those who continue to live there. Civilians have always been targeted. Every time the opposition controls a new area, civilian areas are bombed. The regime has bombed many schools. Most recently, the regime’s air force bombed the school of Ain Jalout in the Ansari neighborhood on April 30, 2014. 25 people were killed, including 14 students.
The neighborhood of Sayf al-Dawla is divided into two parts; one is controlled by the regime and the other is controlled by the opposition. The regime forces usually avoided bombing such mixed areas so they didn’t mistakenly bomb areas under their control. The neighborhood of Sayf al-Dawla had rarely been bombed and was relatively bearable before the bombing campaign that started on April 9, which encouraged us to continue.
However, we were always very cautious – we did not let kids play in the school’s courtyard, we always stayed on the ground floor which consisted of 7 classrooms with 25 children in each. We also limited the school’s operational hours to four hours in a morning shift and four hours in an afternoon shift.
Syria Deeply: What was the response to the most recent attack?
Muhammad al-Anadani: The Education Directorate in the free governorate of Aleppo held an emergency meeting right after the bombing of the Center for Children’s Training and Rehabilitation in the neighborhood of Sayf al-Dawla. They decided that schools should be closed, but for how long, no one can tell. The security situation these days is not good, and that constitutes a direct threat to the life of children.
Syria Deeply: What are the challenges to keeping schools open in opposition-held Aleppo? How do you protect your students?
Muhammad al-Anadani: There are 80 functioning elementary and middle schools in the opposition-controlled areas in Aleppo. Each school accommodates 150 students. Schools and educational centers are usually in easily accessible locations.
The Education Directorate provided at least one school in each neighborhood, based on the needs of each neighborhood. We don’t provide transportation for the kids. Schools are typically a 10- to 20-minute walk from home for students.
However, due to the deteriorating security situation, working hours at schools are limited to four-hour shifts: from 8:00 a.m. to noon, and from 12:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. We generate electricity for schools either via small, private generators, or via providers who had purchased big, commercial generators.
Starting a new school does not take a long time – usually two or three weeks. All we need to do is find a safe location. The challenges we face are financial. Even if teachers volunteer for a few months, we still need around $2,000 to secure needed supplies, such as chalkboards, desks, etc. Things were easier four years ago. Wealthy people used to fund such projects, but the economy dove and nobody cares about education anymore.
My colleagues and I are working hard to find safe places to hold classes. Some of my colleagues decided to work with relief organizations until the schools reopen.
Syria Deeply: How have teachers been impacted by the violence and targeting of schools in Aleppo?
Muhammad al-Anadani: Teachers’ salaries before the revolution ranged from $200 to $450 per month, based on the number of years of service. Many teachers have either moved to regime-controlled regions for the prospect of guaranteed salaries, or they have fled the country. Most of those who remain are recent graduates. Most of those who teach in the opposition-controlled areas of Aleppo have acclimated to the difficulties they face in daily life and work. Maybe they stay because they feel responsible for the kids here, or maybe this has just become normal life for them.
Syria Deeply: How are the school closures affecting people in the city of Aleppo?
Muhammad al-Anadani:No one objected to the decision. They fear for their kids’ lives. A mother who had lost her son during the bombing of the center broke my heart when said she wished he had not woken up early that morning and he had not gone to school. Perhaps, after what happened, many don’t want to send their children to school. Perhaps they would rather lose their kids’ education than lose the kids themselves. We understand their feelings and this is why we are, in collaboration with the Education Directorate, working to find safe alternatives.
Syria Deeply: What are the ramifications of children having no access to education in Aleppo?
Muhammad al-Anadani: It is very dangerous. We are working hard to raise an educated generation that will help build a modern Syria in the future. Children missing out on their education will affect both their future and the country’s future. The opposition is in control of big areas in Syria, and all kids living in these areas do not get adequate education. This is frightening.
Children respond differently to the ongoing violence. Some kids are used to the situation. They watch the airplanes flying and the explosive barrels falling and they laugh. It is like a scene from a movie for them. Others are terrified by the sound of an airplane.
It’s important to highlight that the closure of our schools is temporary and that our goal is to raise an educated generation, even under the conditions of war.