In A Ravaged Aleppo, Back To School Means Bunker-Style Classrooms

As students return to school this month in the rebel-held areas of Aleppo, they won't be heading back to the same classrooms they left last year. Instead, they'll be studying in basements and other "secure areas" across the devas

At school in Aleppo
At school in Aleppo
Tamer Osman

ALEPPO â€" Students in Aleppo will be changing classrooms this year, but the move certainly can't be characterized as an upgrade.

According to a statement issued by the education department in the city's liberated areas, classes will no longer be held in existing schools. Students will instead attend classes in basements and other "secure areas" that have been equipped with security features meant to protect the children.

The statement, issued earlier this month, explained that because the Syrian government frequently targets schools, the municipality had been forced to undertake precautionary measures, additionally instructing both students and teachers not to leave the new locations before the end of the school day.

The decision came after repeated bombings on schools. The most recent happened in April, when Syrian government forces targeted the Saad al-Ansari school in the al-Mashhad neighborhood. Nine children and four teachers were killed in the attack, and 24 others were injured.

"I did not want to send my kids to school this year. I fear for their safety," says Abu Ali, a 39-year-old father of two children, ages seven and nine, from the al-Qatirji neighborhood. "However, I heard from friends of mine that some classes will be held in basements this year," he says. "After checking the new places myself, I discussed the issue with my wife, and we decided to send them to school. We want our kids to have an education, but we care more for their lives and for their safety."

Other than the musty smell of the basements, the biggest challenge educators face in the liberated area of Aleppo is the scarcity of financial resources. Most schools in these areas are entirely dependent on contributions from humanitarian organizations.

"All of our schools are run by the directorate of education, which is administered by the Syrian interim government," says Safwan Badawi, a lawyer and the principle of an elementary school. "It is not able to secure all needed supplies, like stationery for students and salaries for teachers. And due to very low salaries, which range between $25 and $100 per month, many teachers are moving either to other countries or to the regime-controlled areas."

Staffing is difficult

Badawi also says schools in the area lack teachers with any kind of specialization. "Right before the beginning of the school year, the directorate of education started a job search, but most who applied were either university students who could not continue their education because of the conflict, or those with no more than a high school degree. The directorate has no choice but to accept them because most teachers with a higher level of education have already left."

He adds that the curricula are based on the regime's recommendations, with some alterations. "We, for example, omitted the book of national education, which revolves around the Ba'ath Party and its achievements," Badawi says. "We also omitted all pictures of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and all references to the regime, replacing them with pictures and references to the Syrian revolution, like Hamza al-Khatib, the first kid who was killed in the revolution."

Hamza al-Khatib â€" Source: Ocaasi/Wikimedia Commons

Badawi says the ongoing civil war, now well into its fifth year, has had a disastrous effect on youth education in the area. "When the regime escalates its military campaigns against us, many families don't send their kids to school, or they leave and move to other areas," he says. "These frequent ruptures weaken the kids' commitment to education. In many other cases, parents don't send their kids to school because they need them to work and earn money to help the family."

Yasin, 11, is in the fifth grade, and his class now meets, when they can, in the basement of his old school. "I really hope the bombing stops soon," he says. "I wish I could go to school every day. I want to be a doctor someday. But when there is bombing, my parents keep me home."

According to Muhammad Mustafa Abul Hassan, an Arabic-language teacher and the director of education in liberated Aleppo, the area has 130 schools registered for this academic year.

"We have 32,000 students, most of whom are in elementary schools," he says. "But of that number, only 1% are high schoolers. Most students that age have migrated to Europe or to neighboring countries."

He says that though classes this year are being held in unusual locations, they plan to include recreational classes and activities. "We are doing our best to help the new generation receive a decent education, despite all the difficulties," he says.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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