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Syria's Aleppo University tries to carry on after mystery blasts

Both sides in the conflict blame the other for an attack that killed more than 80. Grieving students are determined to continue their studies.

January 29, 2013|By Patrick J. McDonnell and Lava Selo, Los Angeles Times
  • Bodies of young men, many handcuffed and with bullet holes in their heads, were found in a muddy riverbed in Aleppo, the latest atrocity in Syria for which no one has claimed responsibility.
Bodies of young men, many handcuffed and with bullet holes in their heads,… (Abdullah al-Yassin / Associated…)

BEIRUT — Before the first explosion, Laila and fellow architecture students at Aleppo University in Syria had gathered by chance in a stairwell, which shielded them from flying glass and shrapnel.

In an instant, the less fortunate lay dead and injured amid the scattered debris.

A second blast a few minutes later hit a dormitory across the street, causing more casualties.

The twin explosions two weeks ago that killed more than 80 people and wounded 150 also left Laila determined to return to the university as exams and normal class schedules resumed Tuesday for the first time since the blasts.

"If we don't continue attending classes, we will become a backward country," said Laila, 22, who used her Red Crescent training to aid victims at the chaotic scene.

The blasts, apparently caused by a pair of missiles, were among the deadliest and most stunning of Syria's almost two-year civil conflict, spurring global revulsion at a frontal assault against one of the nation's leading educational institutions. The targeting of the university stood out as an appalling act even amid a withering conflict that has seen an ever-escalating death toll, now more than 60,000, according to the United Nations.

The perpetrators remain unknown. No one has taken responsibility.

Each side in the war between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and opposition fighters blames the other. Each has sought to score propaganda points from the carnage.

Still, no definitive evidence has emerged linking either side to the atrocity.

That is often the case now in Syria, where mass killings of civilians regularly spark outrage, grief and bitter accusations, but no hint of accountability. Independent investigation is often impossible, as outside access to the war zone is limited.

The bruised and battered city of Aleppo, once Syria's thriving commercial hub, witnessed its latest atrocity Tuesday: The bodies of dozens of young men, many handcuffed and with bullet holes in their heads, apparent victims of summary execution, were found in a muddy riverbed, opposition activists reported.

Impunity reigns, even as world panels threaten vaguely of war crimes prosecutions to come. Bodies are buried, mourners weep, the debris is swept away, and life goes on, as it does this week at Aleppo University despite the horrific memories.

It was about 1 p.m. on Jan. 15 when the first of the explosions rocked the university's sprawling, tree-lined campus. The blast appears to have occurred outside the architecture building, where Laila and other students were gathering inside for midyear exams.

The dormitory hit by the second strike housed displaced civilians from the city's battered front-line districts. Most casualties were there, among desperate people already coping with homelessness.

An amateur video seems to have captured the moment of the second strike. The person holding the camera approaches a column of black smoke, probably from the first explosion. Several multistory buildings, apparently a dormitory block, are visible on the right. Suddenly, a roar is heard and an explosion of flame engulfs the buildings. A mushroom cloud of thick, gray smoke billows into the clear-blue midafternoon sky.

Photos of the aftermath show the facade sheared off the dormitory, revealing cubicles spilling out beds and other furniture, random artifacts of former lives. Human remains were blasted out into the street, where vehicles were set ablaze and the dead lay among the grievously wounded.

"We saw body parts everywhere, in the trees, on the ground," said Semoon, a second-year dentistry student, who, like others interviewed, did not want his full name used for security reasons.

The attacks came at a time of relative calm in Aleppo, when a spell of inclement weather and a shift in rebel strategy toward attacking bases outside town had resulted in a lull in government bombardment.

Opposition activists say warplanes firing missiles were the culprit. As evidence, the activists cite witness accounts of streaking aircraft at the time of the strikes. The motive is clear, they say: Payback for Aleppo University's standing as a longtime hub of protests against the government.

The U.S. State Department backed the opposition allegation, saying Washington was "appalled by the Syrian regime's deadly attack." Russia, Assad's ally, called the notion of government involvement "blasphemous."

The accusation that the military launched the attack, however, raises a question: Why would the government bomb a campus well within its zone of control?

Since July, when rebels slipped into Aleppo, the city has been roughly divided into opposition and government-held sectors. The front lines have mostly held as the battle has turned into a protracted stalemate, mirroring the standoff nationwide.

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