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As Civilian Casualties Rise, Syrian Children Attend Secret Schools

November 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
According to estimates by activists, more than 28,000 civilians have been killed since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. As schools, bakeries and other community buildings are targeted, some Syrians seeking safety are moving centers of daily life to clandestine locations. Margaret Warner reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn now to Syria.

The NewsHour sent freelance video journalist Toby Muse there recently to see how civilians are faring.

As Margaret Warner reports, many have become targets in the country’s civil war.

And a warning: Some images may be disturbing.

MARGARET WARNER: Within the walls of a secret school in Northwest Syria, young students are studying arithmetic, English and Arabic.

Their wide eyes and smiles betray little of the war raging just outside in the streets of their town of al-Bab and across their country.

QUESTION: What does he think when he hears the planes fly overhead?

CHILD (through translator): I don’t have any fear.

MARGARET WARNER: Run by teachers who asked to remain anonymous, this classroom was opened just weeks ago in al-Bab, a city of 120,000 less than an hour from Aleppo, and now ostensibly under control of the rebel forces of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA.

In FSA areas like these, the Syrian government is increasingly turning to air and long-range artillery attacks, hitting not only rebels, but civilian institutions, too.

Six schools in al-Bab were bombed in the last two months, this one by a MiG fighter jet in September, just before students were set to return from summer vacations.

Although some schools remain standing, the scorched murals and homework sheets amidst the rubble warn parents not to send their children back. That’s given rise to clandestine classrooms like this one in places thought safer from detection and attack.

ABDUL LATIF, opposition activist: We are all terrified from the situation, because we do not know when we will die.

MARGARET WARNER: Abdul Latif is an opposition activist in al-Bab.

ABDUL LATIF: It’s not the schools are the target only. It’s anywhere, anyplace. All places here in the city are a target.

MARGARET WARNER: On the day a NewsHour crew visited town, reports of a fighter jet approaching sent residents fleeing for safety.

Though reliable statistics are hard to come by, one activist group estimates more than 32,000 have been killed in the 19 months since the Syrian civil war began.

And, of those, the vast majority are estimated to be civilians.

TOM MALINOWSKI, Human Rights Watch: It’s one of the worst civilian death tolls of any conflict in the world in the last few years.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Malinowski is director of Human Rights Watch in Washington, D.C., which is working to monitor the situation on the ground.

TOM MALINOWSKI: One horrific example involves the shelling and bombing of bread lines in cities like Aleppo.

Syrian civilians come out to line up for bread at these bakeries. It’s the only way that they have of feeding their families. And when a large group of people gathers, a bomb lands or a shell lands. It’s very hard to imagine that that’s random.

MARGARET WARNER: One instance, on Aug. 21, a government helicopter opened fire on a bread line in an Aleppo suburb, killing 21.

JEFFREY WHITE, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: They attack bakeries where they know people are going to be and to get at the food supply for the population. They burn houses, dwellings for civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the Syrian government is waging a deliberate scorched-earth strategy.

JEFFREY WHITE: It’s trying to get at FSA units that are embedded inside the population. Where the people are, the FSA tends to be.

But it is also to punish the people, the civilians, for supporting the FSA. The relationship between the FSA units and the people is critical to the success of the rebellion.

MARGARET WARNER: Why don’t the regime forces just go in these areas and take them and hold them?

JEFFREY WHITE: It basically can’t do that any longer. Six months ago, they could go anywhere in the country, effectively, where they wanted with armor and mechanized forces simply push the FSA out of the area and reestablish a presence. The opposition is strong enough now that for the regime’s ground forces to go into those areas is a punishing affair for the regime.

MARGARET WARNER: Throughout this conflict, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has blamed the high civilian deaths on the rebels themselves, foreign agents and military accidents.

PRESIDENT BASHAR AL-ASSAD, Syria (through translator): We do not carry out these acts because we love to spill blood. This battle was forced upon us, and the result is this blood that has been spilled.

MARGARET WARNER: Malinowski of Human Rights Watch says the rebels do have abuses to account for, too.

TOM MALINOWSKI: The overwhelming majority of human rights abuses in this conflict have been committed by the Syrian government and its militia allies. That doesn’t mean that the rebels have been perfect.

MARGARET WARNER: Just today, video surfaced of FSA forces allegedly executing unarmed Syrian soldiers, though the veracity of the video could not be verified.

Still, when it comes to killing civilians, independent observers hold the regime primarily responsible.

In late May, more than 100 men, women and children were butchered in the village of Houla. A United Nations-appointed panel said government forces and loyalist militias were responsible for the massacre.

Then too, President Assad denied his regime’s forces were involved.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD (through translator): In reality, even monsters wouldn’t carry out what we have seen, especially what we saw in the Houla massacre. We as Syrians have will continue to feel embarrassment every time we remember it as long as we are alive.

MARGARET WARNER: Tom Malinowski says the Assad regime will ultimately pay a price for a pattern of killing that violates the Geneva Conventions.

TOM MALINOWSKI: If the government is bombing a city, even with the intent of killing rebels, but if it’s using weapons that are — fall indiscriminately and kill a lot of civilians, that’s also a violation of international law.

MARGARET WARNER: But the threat of legal action offers no protection to these students, who now dream of what they will become when they grow up.

CHILD (through translator): A dentist.

CHILD (through translator): a teacher.

MARGARET WARNER: No one can tell them when this war will end, what kind of country they will inherit, and whether they will live to fulfill those dreams.