Two explosions struck Aleppo University earlier this week, killing more than 80 students and wounding many others in the biggest attack of its kind on Syrian universities since the country’s uprising started less than two years ago.
The attack will put a crimp on what little is left of the already struggling Syrian higher-education system, along with devastating those who witnessed it.
“We were standing in the lobby of the Architecture College preparing to enter the examination hall, when we heard a loud explosion that shattered windows and blew out the hall doors,” Ahmed, an Aleppo University student, told Al Fanar. “We tried to go out, but the doors were closed and only by the help of the Fine Arts professors did we get out just a few minutes before the building started burning.”
Mohammed Wahid Akkad, Aleppo’s governor, told the run-state news agency SANA that the were 82 fatalities and more than 160 wounded in the attack that targeted students on their first day of exams. Mid-term exams at Syria’s six public universities, 17 private universities, 15 institutes of higher education, and several intermediate institutes usually take place from the end of December to the end of January. The number of those killed in university’s blasts could rise even further because medics have collected unidentified body parts and some of the injured are in critical condition, a source at Aleppo Hospital told Al Fanar.
Many students were in shock. “Only God’s mercy has protected me. I went out of the building to get a snack when the rocket fell on the building,” said Rana, an electrical engineering student, in an interview. Many of her colleagues were killed or injured during the attack. “I won’t ever go back to the university and I do not think that my parents will even allow me to,” she said.
Syria’s Ministry of Higher Education suspended classes and exams at all Syrian universities for one day, the first time in the country that has happened since the uprising began. The suspension was “in mourning for the souls of the heroic martyrs who were assassinated by the treacherous terrorist hand,” SANA reported.
“I do not think that the university teaching process will return to normal soon, not only because of the long time that it will take for the rehabilitation and restoration of the university, but also because of the fear and panic that hit the students and their parents as a result of this terrible attack,” said a professor at the university who wished to remain anonymous. He stressed that attacking university buildings and institutions of higher education represents a major crime.
It remains unclear what caused the blasts. The university, which has a reputation for being the home of many people who are sympathetic to the opposition, is located in government-controlled territory. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that forces loyal to the Syrian government launched two airstrikes on Aleppo’s student residence halls, as well as at the architecture school. Among the dead were refugees who lived in the dormitories, having fled their homes since fighting intensified back in July. Meanwhile, the Syrian state media said a “terrorist group” – the government’s shorthand for rebels – hit the campus with two rockets.
Facebook pages filled up with dozens of posts by students who say they saw an aircraft flying at a low altitude over the area of the university before flashes and loud explosions. “I saw the plane with my own eyes… Stop lying,” one student wrote about a news report that said a car blew up on campus. Another student, commenting on a picture of the extensive damage at the faculty of architecture, said “They bombed the college because they do not want a reconstruction of the country.”
Almost two years into the crisis, protests that emerged largely from mosques have found their way onto campuses. Both public and private universities in Syria have witnessed armed clashes and student homicides. University teachers and administrators are struggling to keep the educational process going.
“Education today has become a risk,” a professor who teaches information technology told Al Fanar. What happened in Aleppo could happen at any other university, he said, but he does not want to suspend classes: “Education is our only weapon against terrorism.”
The Higher Education Ministry reported recently that the rising violence in Syria has hurt the country’s higher education system, with losses totalling nearly 170 million Syrian pounds, or about $2.4 million (U.S.), a state newspaper reported on January 8. The damage to university buildings, research centres, teaching hospitals, and libraries happened across Syria, the report said.
The University of Aleppo, the second largest Syrian university after Damascus, celebrated its fiftieth university in 2008 and has more than 78 thousand students and about 1,500 postgraduate students, according to the most recent official statistics (2003-4). The university attracts students from various Syrian provinces especially from cities in the North and East. The university is considered to have many activists in the uprising against the regime and is called a “university of the revolution” by the opposition. The university had many large student demonstrations last year, which were usually met by a government show of force. The regime shut the university down for the first time at the beginning of May after a series of raids, arrests, and killings inside the university campus.