Human Rights Watch has published (9 November 2020) a report heavily referencing the purported events featured in the 2013 BBC Panorama programme Saving Syria’s Children (hereafter SSC).
“They Burn Through Everything” The Human Cost of Incendiary Weapons and the Limits of International Law includes an interview with Muhammed Assi, the central figure in the tableau of male purported incendiary bomb attack casualties filmed by the BBC at Atareb Hospital, Aleppo on 26 August 2013.
The tableau sequence was initially shown on the BBC 10 O’Clock News on 29 August 2013 as parliament was voting on whether to join US-led military strikes on Syria. The scene, and others featuring Assi, were broadcast in SSC a month later on 30 September 2013.
Assi is recognisable in the video which accompanies the Human Rights Watch report as the individual who made the distinctive peace sign in the BBC’s report seven years earlier:
The HRW report gives an account of Assi’s purported experience:
On August 26, 2013, Syrian government forces attacked a three-story building about 100 meters from Urum al-Kubra’s Iqraa Institute, a school serving intermediate and secondary students in a town in the northern Aleppo governorate. Muhammed Assi, then 18 years old, and other students hurried outside to see what had happened. “We saw a plane in the sky. It was very far away so we thought, ‘OK, it won’t hit us,’” Muhammed told Human Rights Watch and IHRC. Teachers urged the students to return inside where it was safer. Muhammed and five classmates, however, stayed in the courtyard with a playground talking about the attack and what they would study the following year. The group suddenly heard a faint, “unfamiliar” sound, and “[t]here were large fires, and choking fumes.” An incendiary bomb had landed in the middle of the six students, immediately killing the other five. “The intensity of the explosion threw me a distance of about 3 to 4 meters from where the missile struck,” Muhammed recounted. “We were surrounded by the fire. I used my hands to hit my head to try to snuff out the fire.”
The report continues:
Encircled by flames, Muhammed did not move for some time. “Time seems to stop when these things happen to you…,” he said. “[W]ords can’t describe my feelings, but I saw the fire completely surrounding me from everywhere, and when the breeze blew, it fed oxygen into the incendiary substance and made it burn even stronger.” Finally, a teacher told him they needed to leave. Muhammed remembered that as he began walking, he saw “many students laying on the ground, badly burned, trying to get someone to help them, and no one was helping them. Students were trying to break the windows and the glass with bare hands to get out without getting hurt.” Local civilians rushed him and others in a pickup truck to al-Atarib Hospital about 20 to 25 minutes away because there was no hospital in Urum al-Kubra.
Muhammed recalled, “When we first got to the hospital, the doctors didn’t have a lot of experience dealing with this kind of substance, so they started by dousing us with water and with some serums, and this was calming to us at first, but then after less than a minute, my pain would multiply.”
Muhammed suffered from burn injuries over 85 percent of his body’s surface area. He said his burns extended to half of his face, one of his ears, his neck, his shoulders, his back, his hand, and both legs and feet. He also struggled to breathe and had burns in his stomach. Despite the pain, he flashed a peace sign at a BBC camera crew that had been doing a documentary on Dr. Hallam and Dr. Ahsan. “The peace sign was just to express that, despite everything, we want to live and stay alive and we won’t stop no matter what,” he said.
In 2014 BBC Audience Services provided this photograph of Assi “taken two weeks after the attack in hospital in Turkey.”
The video accompanying the HRW report includes the following still images:
Images on Assi’s social media accounts appear to show burns to both of his hands:
A recent post (14 October 2020) pictures Assi reunited with members of the BBC Panorama team:
The HRW report notes that Assi
has since received psychological treatment from a Syrian doctor in France and grown accustomed to the questions from strangers, but, he said, some people fear him because of his scars.
One might question how a student from a rural part of Aleppo would be able to fund such treatment.
The HRW report contains an account of the purported events of 26 August 2013 by Dr Rola Hallam “a British-Syrian doctor who helped treat” victims, Dr Saleyha Ahsan “another British emergency care doctor on duty at the same hospital” and others.
Dr Ahsan is a former British Army Captain who has served in Bosnia and a former presenter on the BBC Two health series Trust Me I’m A Doctor. Dr Hallam’s father is, according to Dr Ahsan in 2013, “involved politically with the Syrian National Council”. Previous inconsistencies in accounts of the events of 26 August 2013 by Drs Hallam and Ahsan are noted here and here.
Some observations on HRW’s new account of the Urum al-Kubra incident follow.
The case study is based on recent Human Rights Watch-IHRC interviews with Muhammed Assi, with a teacher who witnessed the attack and preferred to remain anonymous, and with Dr. Saleyha Ahsan and Dr. Rola Hallam, both volunteers with the UK humanitarian organization Hand in Hand for Syria who treated the injured students that day.
The “teacher who witnessed the attack” speaks in English at 3 mins 11s in the video accompanying the HRW report. This would seem to be the person whose words are translated from Arabic into English from 44s in the BBC 10 O’Clock News report of 29 August 2013 and from 41 mins 40s in SSC, and who is referred to as the school’s headmaster.
Despite claims to be preserving the headmaster’s identity, those involved in the BBC reports appear to have named this person on at least two occasions.
Contemporary reports by Sky and ITN featured footage of another purported teacher supposedly injured in the purported Urm al-Kubra incendiary attack. As is the case with several other purported victims and witnesses, this person appeared to be in little distress.
The same individual appears fleetingly in SSC, swaying and lurching in a bizarre manner.
The BBC claims (p10) that the school shown in its news report and in SSC “was a residential home hired by the headmaster and his colleagues, and they were holding summer courses at the time of the attack”. That the building is residential in origin is evident from the swimming pool.
In several articles and interviews Dr Ahsan identifies the school as “the Iqraa Institute”. I am advised that the signage seen in this video, shot at the scene a day after the purported attack, confirms the use of the name “Iqraa” or “Iqra”.
A May 2014 article by Ola Rifai, research fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at St. Andrews university, describes how “Iqrà” schools were instituted in eastern Ghouta in 2011 by Salafi fighting group Liwa al-Islam (now Jaysh al-Islam). Rifai notes: “Mohamed Abu Ziad – the deputy manager of the Iqrà organisation – stresses that the curriculum focuses on religious affairs and attempts to “raise a generation that has a sense of pride in its religion”.”
The head of a local Syrian team which has investigated the purported Urum al-Kubra incendiary attack observed in 2014 (Word download): “An “IQRA” center is mobile and will receive Muslim clerics, imposed by the local rebel council, to verify if the “ideas” of the population are in harmony with the religious wahhabi fundamentalism that is adopted by the revolutionaries, let them be [sic] from the Muslim Brotherhood or from Al Qaeda.”
Assuming that the Urum al-Kubra school was affiliated to the Iqrà brand described by Rifai and/or is of the type described by the head of the local Syrian team, then the casual attire of the “headmaster” and of the purported teacher in the white t-shirt would seem to be out of place. Of the latter, the head of the local Syrian team wrote (Word download): “This man is said to be the “institutor”. This is in contradiction with the “IQRA” system where the “institutor” is not a civilian professor but a muslim cleric called “Sheikh”.”
Further, Rifai writes of Iqrà schools that “female students are not allowed to mix with their male peers”. As noted below, despite a jarring eyewitness reference to “seven martyrs and about 50 wounded from the religious college for women and girls”, the purported victims transported to Atareb Hospital consist mostly of adolescent males with a much smaller number of females. The BBC does not tell us whether classes at the Urum al-Kubra Iqra school were segregated by sex.
Human Rights Watch also interviewed Mustafa Haid, an activist who arrived on the scene in al-Atarib Hospital shortly after the attack.
Mustafa Haid is on record as claiming that he “heard rumours” of the attack at “3 in the afternoon”. The BBC reporter involved has stated that the attack happened “at around 5.30pm at the end of the school day”. As noted here there are discrepancies of up to six hours in accounts of when the attack supposedly occurred.
Shortly after the attack, the hospital was inundated by injured students. “It honestly looked like a scene out of Armageddon,” said Dr. Hallam. “They all came in in very similar ways. Their clothes [were] hanging off them. They had the awful smell of singed flesh added to a weird chemical synthetic smell…. It was very clear they had severe burns and one of the most alarming [things] was how little pain [some of them] seemed to be in, which is immediately a red flag for how extensive their burns were because we know that major burns are not painful.”
Dr Hallam here echoes phrases used in SSC: at 32:12 in SSC Dr Hallam’s colleague Dr Ahsan states “Their clothes are hanging off them”; at 39:17 Dr Ahsan says “Today was like something out of flippin’ Armageddon”. In a 2017 account of the purported Urum al-Kubra incident Dr Hallam also echoed very specific language used by Dr Ahsan in SSC (“white powder dust”). It is hard to avoid the sense that Dr Hallam is recalling the script of SSC rather than her own experience.
Other students also suffered severe injuries. Dr. Hallam described one boy as looking “wooden” when he first came to the hospital. “He was obviously burned. [His hoarse voice] immediately told me his insides were burned, burned through his throat…. I knew he was going to die inside the hour,” she said. “In terms of mass casualty treatment, I should have just left him to die because it was futile in the medical sense, but I knew he would suffocate to death. I ended up intubating and ventilating and sedating him … and he slipped away that way.”
In her 2017 account Dr Hallam similarly describes a boy “so burnt he looks like a tree bark”. Neither description, in my view, matches any of the purported victims who feature in SSC or associated third party footage. In her 2017 account Dr Hallam appears to describe an exchange with the “wooden” boy in English, which might appear incongruous in the circumstances.
Doctors particularly remembered the suffering of an 18-year-old student named Siham Qanbari. “She was meant to be the brightest and one of the best in her class, and despite the risks of [going to school] with all of these bombings, she insisted on continuing to get her education,” said Dr. Hallam, who treated Siham. When she arrived at al-Atarib Hospital, Siham was in extreme pain due to injuries on over 60 percent of her body. Dr. Hallam told Human Rights Watch and IHRC, “I knew things weren’t looking good. She had major burns, her face was burned, her clothes were hanging off her, she had an awful smell of singed flesh, not just from her but from the dozens of children who came in.”
Siham Qanbari (or Kanbari) appears in footage shot by the BBC and others at Atareb Hospital.
Despite claims by Dr Ahsan to have been alerted to the crisis by the “screams first of all from a baby and then young girls” and the witness reference to “seven martyrs and about 50 wounded from the religious college for women and girls”, the vast majority of purported victims filmed at Atareb Hospital on 26 August 2013 are adolescent males. Only six female purported victims are seen in all the footage of which I am aware.
While the majority of the male purported victims either arrived or were subsequently filmed with their clothing tattered or removed for purported emergency treatment, all of the adult female purported victims are fully clad.
Siham’s father, Ridwan, “kept begging me, ‘Please, treat her as your daughter.’ I didn’t have a daughter at the time, but I do now,” Dr. Hallam said. Siham was transferred to a hospital in Turkey and later died from her injuries.
The BBC has clarified (point 17) that the man in green who at 37:18 in SSC implores Dr Hallam: “I beg you treat her like your own daughter” is not Siham’s father but “presumably a relative”. Siham’s father, Ridwan Qambari, is the balding man in beige.
As an aside, earlier in the report HRW includes what is an unmistakeable reference, this time by Dr Ahsan, to Siham Qanbari and her father, although without naming either.
She recalled a man “begging for us to help his daughter,” who was “howling in pain and calling for her father. The sounds are in my ears still…. It was awful.”
Accounts of when Siham is supposed to have died vary.
The BBC added the following image to the end credits of SSC when it was available on BBC iPlayer, purporting to show Siham among friends and/or relatives.
Compare with Siham as depicted in the Atareb Hospital sequences of SSC.
The HRW report comes at a time when the BBC is attempting to discredit those challenging the establishment narrative on Syria and as this blog exceeds a quarter of a million hits and the view that SSC contains fabricated sequences starts to become entertained in quarters which may feel rather close to home.