Banned Cluster Bombs Killing and Maiming Children in Aleppo

FAIRFIELD, Conn. (October 21, 2016) — Aid workers and medical professionals in East Aleppo are reporting the widespread use of cluster bombs in recent months, weapons that are banned under International Humanitarian Law. Despite "humanitarian pauses" taking place in Aleppo today, concerns are mounting about the increased number of children already injured by explosive weaponry who may be too unwell to leave or untreatable in the existing medical facilities which have been battered in the recent bombardment.

A month on from the collapse of the ceasefire in East Aleppo, Save the Children is warning that it is primarily the deadly use of explosive weapons — including cluster bombs — which has led to more than 136 children being killed and 397 wounded since September 23.[1]

The Violations Documentation Center, which documents human rights violations in Syria, recorded 137 cluster bomb attacks in Aleppo from September 10 to October 10 — a 791 percent increase compared to the average of the previous eight months. Across Syria, they report that 130 children have been killed due to cluster bombs in the past year. Syria Civil Defence (White Helmets) report that there were 163 cluster bomb attacks in Aleppo governorate during September.

Save the Children cannot independently verify or confirm these figures and accurate data collection is currently very challenging in East Aleppo, but other sources on the ground report sustained used of cluster bombs since the ceasefire collapsed on September 18.

Cluster bombs are dropped from the air or fired from the ground and scatter multiple submunitions, or bomblets indiscriminately over a wide area — approximately the size of a football field.

Often bomblets fail to explode on impact and are handled by curious children. According to Cluster Munitions Monitor[2], globally some 40 percent of victims of cluster bombs are children, often injured or killed long after direct hostilities end.

The impact of cluster munitions on children’s bodies can be devastating. Surgeons say that at close range, a bomblet can tear off a child’s limbs, blind them or fracture bones. From further away, fragments or ball bearings will embed in the body, usually in the muscles.

"Not all the bomblets explode, and usually they look like a ball or something that a child would play with," Firas*, head of the Organization for Removing Explosives and Remnants of War in East Aleppo, said. "They are mines waiting to explode at any moment, stuck on roofs and windows or lying in playgrounds and parks. There are many cases of amputations in Aleppo city because of this."

"Sometimes 20-30 ball bearings are coming at children, which tears off their arms and legs," Dr. David Nott, a trauma surgeon who has worked in Syria and who advises surgeons in East Aleppo remotely, said. "The ones slightly away from where the bomb lands get them embedded all over their body — they mostly end up in the muscles."

With only an estimated 35 medics left in East Aleppo, doctors only have the time and resources currently to treat the most critical patients whose injuries are life threatening, so fragments such as ball bearings are reportedly often being left in children.

"There’s no time to take them out right now in East Aleppo, the doctors have to make rational decisions. But leaving them in can result in massive infection and sepsis," Dr. Nott added.

Save the Children supports global implementation of the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which comprehensively prohibits the use of these deadly weapons. However, cluster bombs have continued to be used to devastating effect in Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, cluster munition attacks in Syria have significantly increased since September 2015.

"In Syria today, there are young children with freshly amputated limbs or with ball bearings embedded in their muscle tissue because of the use of these appalling and indiscriminate weapons," Sonia Khush, Syria Director at Save the Children said. "Cluster bombs and other explosive weapons with a wide-area impact have no place in any conflict.

"International Humanitarian Law has been consistently violated during the conflict in Syria, from the bombing of schools and hospitals to indiscriminate attacks on civilians. We have to do more to protect children from the carnage of this war. If there is one thing the warring parties must agree on immediately, it should be to end the use of cluster munitions and to allow access to aid agencies so that we can evacuate injured children.

"There must also be accountability for what’s happening to them in Aleppo. Save the Children wants to see urgent investigations launched to establish the full scale of horrific attacks perpetrated in Aleppo and the indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure."

In addition to calling for a halt to cluster munitions in any area and under any circumstance, Save the Children is also pushing for an end to the use of explosive weapons in populated areas because of the civilian harm this practice causes.

[1] Figures are taken from the Aleppo Health Directorate from 23 Sep to 17 Oct. These figures are believed to be an underestimation of the actual child casualties as they only record the incidences of children who have presented at hospitals. Also note that it was not possible for the AHD to record figures daily.

* Pseudonym used for security reasons

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