Survivors of the assault on the Al-Shifa hospital in northern Syria still seeking answers
A year on from a devastating assault on the main hospital in the Syrian city of Afrin, a new Airwars visual investigation has pieced together key features of the attack.
At least 19 people were reportedly killed in two strikes on the Al-Shifa hospital on June 12th, 2021 in what was the single deadliest incident tracked by Airwars in Syria during 2021.
Hospital attacks in Syria are sadly common, with both the Syrian government and allied Russian forces striking dozens of them since the civil war began in 2011. The US-led Coalition against the so-called Islamic State, Turkey and Kurdish groups have also all been accused of targeting medical facilities.
But the Al-Shifa hospital strike was unusual in that the survivors didn’t all identify the same culprit. Some accused the Syrian regime, others the Russians, while others still blamed the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces or allied Kurdish militias. Some even claimed Turkey was responsible for an attack in a city under its influence.
By bringing together satellite imagery, CCTV footage, witness testimony and expert analysis, Airwars created a comprehensive visual assessment of the strike. We were seeking to understand what munition was used and where the rocket was fired from.
While the investigation was not able to definitively conclude which party was responsible, it did define a seven-kilometre wide region from where the rockets were likely launched. In that area the Syrian regime, SDF and Russians all operated.
“We hope that by publishing this investigation on the anniversary of this horrific attack, we will spark a new conversation about the brazen targeting of a hospital,” Emily Tripp, Airwars’ Director, said.
“This case is one of far too many in Syria’s long civil war where families are left seeking answers about who killed their loved ones.”
The full visual investigation is available here.
Afrin is a geopolitically significant city – located at the forefront between multiple belligerents in the 11-year Syrian civil war.
The city is close to the Turkish border and is currently under the control of Turkish-backed groups that operate under the broad title of the Syrian National Army (SNA).
Turkey has fought significant conflicts with Kurdish groups, including the SDF – the closest ally of the United States in Syria. The SDF controls much of the territory to the east of Afrin.
At the time of the strike the Syrian government and its Russian backers also had military capabilities in the region, controlling territory to the southeast of Afrin, while also being known to operate in the east. Russian and Syrian government forces have been the most common strikers of hospitals during the civil war.
Al-Shifa hospital is located in the west of the city and is reportedly close to multiple Turkish government and SNA buildings. The hospital is partly run by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
At the time of the attack Turkish president Erodogan accused the SDF, who in turn accused Syrian government forces. Allegations were also made against Russian forces and even Turkey itself.
Most investigations of this type begin by analysing the remnants of the missiles at the scene. However, according to medical sources on the ground, Turkish-backed authorities removed all shrapnel and other physical evidence from the hospital in the hours after the attack, and also prevented activists and media from accessing the site for several hours. Without these vital clues, we drew on other forms of evidence that might give us an idea of where the projectiles might have been launched from.
Airwars compiled all available visual evidence, including drone footage, CCTV recordings provided by SAMS, social media posts, photographs and satellite imagery. We also gathered witness testimony, including speaking to survivors. Using this information we produced a 3D model of the hospital, mapping the impact locations.
The first strike hit the alleyway of the emergency department at 6.55pm – CCTV footage captured the explosion before cutting out shortly after as the electricity failed. The strike caused significant damage to buildings on both sides of the alleyway and reportedly killed, among others, a woman giving birth.
“It was terrifying. It felt like an earthquake,” medic Mohammed al-Aghawani, who was injured in the attack, told Airwars. “At first I didn’t understand what had happened – whether I was alive or dead.”
The second strike, occurring a few seconds later, hit the main building and damaged the physiotherapy, paediatrics, ENT and surgical clinics. Photographs of the second impact location show a metal rafter broken and bent in half by the projectile as it penetrated the wall.
From this we determined that the projectile would have arrived at an angle perpendicular to the bend of the bar. Plotting this onto a wider map, we concluded that the projectile must have come from a near due easterly direction.
The third strike
Hoping to narrow down the potential launch area further, we extended our 3D model to map a third impact location allegedly from the same volley of projectiles. Dr. Amin Qosho was at sitting at his kitchen table in his apartment home a few hundred metres away from the hospital. Around 7pm a projectile struck the building opposite his apartment. Instead of penetrating the wall, it hit the building’s reinforced elevator shaft, sending a large spread of shrapnel towards Qosho’s balcony and through his door, killing him instantly.
Using video footage and photographs of this impact location we were able to determine the relative height of the building struck and the building directly to the east. Building upon our previous determination that the projectile came from the east, we concluded that the angle of impact must have been high enough to clear the neighbouring building.
To narrow down our launch area further we investigated the munition used.
The type of weapon
While the Turkish-backed authorities removed all munitions remnants from the hospital itself, an image shared on social media that day showed a projectile found between Qosho’s home and the Al-Shifa hospital.
Images showing part of what appears to be remnants of a 122mm BM-21 rocket (spring-loaded fins) taken ~175m from the site of the Afrin hospital attack that killed over a dozen. Possibly from the first part of the double tap strike, hitting surrounding area
36.509510, 36.860433 pic.twitter.com/w8PAUvsTYU
— Alexander McKeever (@AKMcKeever) June 14, 2021
The projectile was identified as a 122mm, fired from a BM21 GRAD rocket launcher. This type of launcher was first developed by the Soviet Union in the 1960s but are now a very common – used by multiple sides in the Syrian war. Such launchers fire up to 40 projectiles in a single volley and are inherently inaccurate – designed for open battle fields not urban warfare.
While it was impossible to say with absolute certainty that the hospital and Qosho’s home were also hit by 122mm rockets, it is likely they were from the same volley of rockets.
Firing tables for GRAD rockets give a typical range of between 5 and 20 kilometres. However, using our model we determined that to clear the top of the building to the east, the rocket would have had to enter at a minimum of 23.4 degrees. This narrowed our potential launch area down further to between 12.3 and 20.5 kilometres.
We shared all our visual evidence with a leading world expert in GRAD rockets, Ove Dullum. He agreed that the projectiles came from an easterly direction, adding that the fragment patterns from the impact indicated a low angle of impact, narrowly clearing the neighbouring building to the east.
Compiling his analysis with our own findings we estimate that the rockets were likely fired from the east and within the closer half of our range.
Other investigations have found that the same type of rockets have been launched from the same area, including one by @obretix on a strike that hit the headquarters of a medical first responders organisation in Afrin six weeks after the attack on Al-Shifa hospital.
At the time of the incident, our estimated launch area was mostly under control of the SDF, America’s closest ally in Syria, along with allied militia groups. However control of this region is complicated. Reports in the weeks prior to the attack showed evidence of Russian and Syrian military forces operating within our estimated launch area.
On the 2nd of June, alleged Turkish artillery targeting SDF positions in Mara’anaz reportedly killed a Lieutenant in the Syrian militant, showing the presence and proximity of both the SDF and Regime forces in the area. Two days prior to the Al-Shifa attack, three soldiers from the Syrian military were reportedly injured by alleged Turkish bombardment on Menagh airbase, located within our potential launch area.
As such official designation of responsibility remains unclear. The SDF, Russians and Syrian Government all deny responsibility for this attack on a vital resource.
For the families of the victims and the survivors, the lack of accountability makes the suffering harder.
“I tried to check on the families of the martyrs – their psychological and financial situations are very bad,” Al-Aghawani said. “Personally, every few nights I dream of bombing.”
Airwars invites anyone with additional information to come forward.
Single strike may cause 350 metre span of damage, new Airwars visual investigation finds
A single Russian cluster munition that struck a hospital and blood donation centre in Ukraine likely caused lethal damage spanning 350 metres, a new Airwars visual investigation has found.
During Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, its use of cluster munitions has been widely documented. More than 100 countries have signed a UN convention banning their use, though Russia, Ukraine and the United States are among the nations yet to sign up. Such weapons are often described as indiscriminate. However on the ground, evidence of exactly how widespread their effects are can be are often hard to document. Yet a recent strike on the snow-covered grounds of a Ukraine hospital presented strong visual documentation.
Using uniquely placed, open-source videos, Airwars created a 3D model of all recorded damage locations when a cluster bomb hit the children’s hospital and a blood donation centre in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. One civilian was reportedly killed while waiting in line with his family to give blood, while hundreds of sick children took refuge in the hospital’s bomb shelters.
The Airwars investigation documented a total of 26 impact sites spanning 350 metres. Additional impacts likely took place in unfilmed areas around the sites.
Cluster munitions can have an impact range from around 100 metres – roughly the size of a football field – to multiple times larger, depending on the height at which they detonate. Their use by Russia has been documented multiple times in Ukraine, including in-depth analysis by Armament Research.
Several munitions experts whom Airwars consulted said the wide distribution of damage at Kharkiv could suggest that Russia is detonating cluster munitions at a higher altitude than normal.
Experts said that while the video showed a wide distribution of impacts, the number of submunitions documented was consistent with potentially being a single rocket. Definitive verification would only be possible with access to the site and to munition remnants.
“It has long been known that cluster munitions are indiscriminate, but this investigation highlights the sheer scale of suffering a single strike can cause,” Emily Tripp, incoming Airwars director, said. “While more than 100 countries have banned their use, many of the world’s largest militaries still refuse to do so – despite the inevitable risk to civilians.”
How the investigation was conducted
The cluster munition strike took place on February 25th, the second day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces had advanced quickly on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, in the northeast of the country.
In the afternoon, local reports first emerged of a devastating attack on a children’s hospital. The first video to emerge online, shot from a car dashcam, captured the moment the cluster munitions impacted on a road just outside the hospital grounds. It was timed-stamped at 16.41. Airwars was able to document and geolocate nine explosions in this video.
A second video filmed shortly after the attack meticulously documented each impact site inside the hospital grounds. Snow coverage enabled clear images of the different impact locations, again allowing them to be geolocated and mapped. In total Airwars investigator Imogen Piper was able to document a total of 25 craters.
In addition, the video showed one unexploded submunition found right outside the hospital entrance. This was a crucial clue, enabling us to identify the type of munition. Multiple weapons experts said it was a Russian made 9N235 or 9N210 cluster submunition – the two are visually identical.
There are two types of rocket capable of delivering these submunitions: the, 220mm 9M27K Uragan; and the 300mm 9M55K Smerch, which carry 30 and 72 submunitions respectively.
Munitions experts told Airwars that Russia is more commonly using 300mm Smerch rockets during the Ukraine conflict; and that their larger firing range of up to 70 kilometres also corresponded to Russian military positions at this time, north-east of Kharkiv.
Whilst 350 metres is a large distribution range for a single rocket, the experts said it was still within the parameters of a single 300mm rocket attack. They added that such rockets can be released at a higher altitude to increase the spread of submunitions.
As the video documents, this makes such cluster munitions relatively ineffective if trying to hit a specific military target. Instead, as Russia’s brutal assault has shown, they cause terror and devastation among civilians, with little military benefit.
Residents of a Gaza apartment block recall the frantic minutes before their homes were turned to rubble
During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.
Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?
In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.