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Syria Conflict Targets Schools


In Syria, the government has seized the final opposition stronghold in the Kusir region, extinguishing the rebel resistance around the town. The top opposition military commander said again on Friday that they refuse to attend the proposed Geneva conference on the Syrian crisis unless they receive new supplies of arms and ammunition. This past week, Human Rights Watch released a report that finds that both sides in the Syrian conflict have put students in danger. The result: one in five Syrian schools is no longer functioning. Priyanka Motaparthy wrote that report, and she joined us from Cairo, Egypt, where she's based. I asked her whether this means that thousands of Syrian children are indeed losing out on an education.

PRIYANKA MOTAPARTHY: Absolutely. It really differs based on the area of the country that you're talking about. There are some parts of the country - for example, the Aleppo governorate - where 6 percent or less of children are still able to go to school. There are other parts where that number is higher, but I think the one in five figure even underestimates the amount of damage to the education system in Syria.

MARTIN: I understand that you did most of your research for Human Rights Watch in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan. I wonder if you could recount the story of one of the students that you met there.

MOTAPARTHY: There was one girl in particular whose story just really stood out. She was a 14-year-old girl named Salma. She went on to describe to me how her school in Daraa in southern Syria was attacked not once but two different times. She said that the first time, her teachers were able to negotiate with government soldiers and get them to leave. But she described a second attack on her school in which she and her classmates hid underneath their desks while hearing the sound of machine gun fire hit the school walls. She said a tank then rolled into the school and that armed men entered. Even despite having experienced this terrifying incident, she told me that even after that, she would fight with her parents to be able to return to school.

MARTIN: I understand you also found it's not just government forces, that teachers and state security agents have also interrogated, harassed and beaten students for allegedly participating in anti-government activity.

MOTAPARTHY: That's correct. The stories about teachers interrogating students about what was happening in their homes, whether their parents watched anti-government news channels, whether or not they kept weapons at home, whether or not they participated in anti-government protests - these really shocked me.

MARTIN: But it's not just pro-Assad troops that are targeting schools. Opposition groups in Syria have been guilty of using schools too.

MOTAPARTHY: Absolutely. I wouldn't want to imply that there is an equivalent between what we found government forces doing and what we found opposition forces doing. But at the same time, we did find that opposition forces are also engaging in practices that endanger students' lives. We found that they've posted snipers on the roofs of schools, including schools that are still in use. We found that they've turned schools into barracks and into detention centers. Whenever you have soldiers enter a school building, that makes these places potential military targets.

MARTIN: So, what has been the reaction of Syrian families? You've spoken with a lot of people in the refugee camps. Are people keeping their kids home out of concern for their safety?

MOTAPARTHY: I did meet a family and described to me that the effects of being caught between the two sides of this conflict had upon their family and their children's access to education. They told me that in their town they received messages from the teachers in their school and from the government that they needed to keep sending their kids to school and that there would be problems for the family if they did not. At the same time, they told me that there was a great deal of pressure from armed opposition forces that they keep their children home from school to show their protest against the government, that it would be a form of strike. So, they told me they felt caught between these two sides.

MARTIN: Priyanka Motaparthy is a researcher for Human Rights Watch. She wrote a new report about attacks on Syria's schools. Ms. Motaparthy, thanks so much for talking with us.

MOTAPARTHY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.