It is one of many shocking and horrific developments of Syria’s bitter, five-year, multi-sided civil war that the killing of dozens of people and injuring of dozens more in an airstrike is almost commonplace – and almost certainly too ‘normal’ to write about.
But the slaughter Thursday afternoon (5 May) of at least 30 people in an airstrike in Idlib province, Syria, which also injured more than 50 others, stands out even against the routine atrocity of daily life in Syria, because this strike was launched against Kammouneh, a refugee camp.
That is, this strike – and all available witnesses attest that it was an airstrike, despite attempts to cast doubt on that by the Russian government*, whose own military is propping up the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad – was launched not against a site of strategic military importance, or even against an area of a city, but against a collection of tents, to which people had fled to escape the war raging around their homes.
*‘Judging by the damage shown in photographs and video, the camp may have been shelled either on purpose or by mistake by multiple rocket launchers,’ was the claim of Russian government spokesman Igor Konashenkov. Unfortunately, having lived and worked in more than one post-conflict zone, none of the images and videos I have seen of the camp in the wake of the attack suggests anything of the sort, while as noted above witnesses on the ground report aircraft delivering the strike.
Nor is this the lone recent example of deliberate targeting of people who have fled the bombs, bullets, fire and chaos of the Syrian Civil War – whether through choice or because they have been forced to.
On 27 April, while I was in Izmir meeting and interviewing aid workers and Syrian men, women and children who had fled their state’s civil war to save their lives, airstrikes destroyed the Quds hospital in Sukari – an anti-government area of Aleppo – which was being operated by local medics in partnership with MSF employees, killing 50 people.
I had openly condemned this strike online, but not written about it, because I have visited and worked at hospitals struck by NATO in Libya and other places, and heard reports of the MSF-run medical facility in Kunduz, Afghanistan, which was struck by the US Air Force on 5 November last year – in short because though unforgivable and unusual, attacks on hospitals are not unique*.
*In fact, as if to confirm this shocking and sickening truth, one week later, on 3 May, missiles fired from a rebel-held area of Aleppo killed 19 people in Dabbit hospital in a government-run area of the city, though it should be noted that these missiles were launched from the ground, indicating that the hospital was far less likely to have been their actual target than in the airstrike on the Quds facility the week before.
I had also hesitated because that day I had interviewed a woman from Aleppo who had explained that though she supported the ongoing efforts to remove Assad from power, she believed that the war was a terrible mistake: ‘brothers and sisters killing each other, not attacking the dictator,’ as she had described it to me.
All those things had given me pause.
But the airstrike on Quds hospital was the seventeenth time this year that Syrian government and Russian airstrikes had targeted hospitals – places which are supposed to be safe, where men, women and children had been rushed because they had already been injured in attacks on their homes, workplaces or in markets or had simply become ill, or injured in an everyday accident like any person might – places, in short, which it is simply unjustifiable, even evil, to attack.
And the targeting of a refugee camp – the shooting of missiles from an aircraft at tents which contain men, woman and children who are terrified and vulnerable, who have run from their homes because of attacks and danger to throw themselves on the mercy of strangers, and attempt to survive under canvas and tarpaulin – is a despicable act.
Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations’ Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Co-ordinator said that those responsible for this inhuman attack on defenceless – in fact some of the world’s most vulnerable – human beings from aircraft and with high-tech weaponry: ‘will one day be held accountable for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.’
On 5 May 2016, refugees were slaughtered from aircraft sent for that exact purpose. Those held accountable must not be just those who carried out this crime, but also those who ordered it, and those whose political and financial support enabled it to take place.
The attack on Kammouneh was a crime against humanity: against every single one of us. It must not be accepted, or forgotten, by any of us.