On a clear afternoon in late August, a government jet flew over Urm Al Kubra, a village in the Aleppo countryside. Siham Qambari, a high-school senior, was in class preparing for exams.
The first bomb fell a hundred meters down the road, hitting the residential building where Siham’s uncle lived and setting it on fire. Fearing a second attack, anxious parents rushed to the school to collect their children. The jet turned in the sky and headed back towards the village.
What the plane dropped on Siham’s school was unlike anything the villagers had seen during two years of violence in their country. It was an incendiary bomb: a canister packed with a highly flammable material that spewed across the playground and ignited on impact. As it did, it set fire to people’s clothes, hair and skin.
“This was the worst sight in the whole Syrian revolution,” said a teacher at Siham’s school, who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. He was in a classroom at the back of the building when he heard the explosion out front. He rushed through to find students and parents on fire. Amid the sound of screaming and the smell of burning, he tried to extinguish the fire with prayer mats. Four people had already burned to death.
“Some of the corpses, it was not clear if they were adult or child, boy or girl. I had worked with some of these kids for 10 years, and I couldn’t tell which body belonged to whom.”
A British security expert who later visited the school identified the remains of a bomb casing as likely belonging to a Russian-made ZAB incendiary weapon.
This was just one of dozens of incendiary bomb attacks by government aircraft on opposition-held areas over the last year, according to experts on the conflict. Human Rights Watch says it has evidence that the Syrian Air Force has used incendiary weapons on at least 56 occasions since November 2012. Airstrikes using incendiary weapons on civilian targets violate the laws of war, because they are inherently indiscriminate.
Saleyha Ahsan, a doctor volunteering with British charity Hand in Hand for Syria, treated some of the wounded and visited Urm Al Kubra after the attack.
“There was no evidence of fighters, checkpoints or buildings used as barracks for fighters,” she said. “The ground directly hit by the bomb was still smoking and the area hot, two days after the event. The same acidic, acrid smell hung over the school and in the rubble where the bomb had hit.”
The survivors were immediately rushed to a hospital in a nearby town. But it was desperately short on staff and medicines. Mustafa Haid, 34, a local human rights activist, went to film the scene.
“As soon as I went in I could smell burned hair. That was the thing that most sticks in my memory,” he said. “There were kids half naked, in their underpants, their bodies all burned. They were screaming, ‘Why did they hit us at school?’ It was terrible, one was asking if he would die. His face was all burned.”
Ian Pannell, a BBC reporter who was at the hospital making a documentary on the work of Ahsan and her colleagues, said the stretchers where victims had been lying were covered in ash from their hair and clothes. He saw Siham when she arrived, with burns on 70 percent of her body.
“She was clearly in agony. She was screaming, the kind of scream you rarely hear, and struggling with the doctor who was trying to administer pain relief,” he said.
After a shot of morphine, Siham was rushed to hospital in Turkey. Seven weeks later, she died.
I met Siham’s father at a friend’s house in Reyhanli, a Turkish town close to Syrian border. It was 3am. Siham had passed away that afternoon. Ridwan Qambari was waiting for daybreak so he could take his daughter’s body back to Syria.
We sat on a thin mattress, drinking endless cups of coffee as the hours passed. Ridwan showed me photographs of his daughter. She had been beautiful—her hair covered with a conservative black headscarf, but her face exposed to reveal dark eyes and a charming smile. In pictures taken after the attack, she was wrapped up like a mummy. Her bandages were soaked through with pus and blood.
Ridwan and Siham’s teacher both told me she had been an excellent student. She had been preparing for exams, and was hoping to go to college. She wanted to study pharmacology or medicine.
“She was getting better. She was running forward,” Ridwan said. A few days before, she had managed to stand and hobble around the ward. Now, her corpse lay in an ambulance in the street outside.
“It was God’s will. We belong to God, and we go back to God,” said Ridwan.
What will be the legacy of the Syrian regime’s use of incendiary weapons? Public revulsion at the U.S.-backed South Vietnamese air force’s use of napalm in the 1970s helped push over 100 countries to sign a 1980 treaty that outlawed napalm and thermite airstrikes on civilians. Syria never signed it.
But incendiary weapons have not gone away. During its 2008-9 offensive in Gaza, according to Human Rights Watch, Israel repeatedly dropped white phosphorus, not covered by the 1980 treaty, on densely populated residential areas. (Israel later admitted to using the chemical, though maintains it did not use it on civilian areas.) This, and Syria’s recurrent use of ZAB munitions against civilians,have exposed flaws in the limited, opt-in agreement.
A dozen nations, including the U.S., have publicly condemned Syria’s use of the weapons. Human Rights Watch is now calling for the law around them to be strengthened, possibly to a full ban.
For Siham Qambari, it is too late.
As sunrise spread orange fingers across the sky, we drove in mini-convoy to the border. We drew up at an iron gate on a road through the olive groves, and waited for the guards to open it, so Siham’s father could take his daughter home.