When Syrian regime forces stormed the campus of Aleppo University in an overnight raid, panic swept through the dormitories, witnesses said, with some students jumping out of windows, others trapped, insulted and beaten.
The university hosts tens of thousands of students from across Syria and is the nerve centre of the country’s commercial powerhouse, which has remained relatively calm through nearly 14 months of bloody turmoil.
But the raid that began late on Wednesday and lasted until dawn, leaving four students dead and 28 wounded, was the bloodiest attack on a university since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime erupted last year.
At least 200 students were also arrested in the raid, which followed peaceful protests, the witnesses said.
“There were 800 of us at the protest calling for freedom and the release of those detained in Syria, before we were dispersed with tear gas,” Hussein, a 20-year-old civil engineering student, told AFP, speaking via Skype.
“We had hardly returned to our dorms when 13 buses and eight pick-up trucks arrived and the regime forces began shooting at the building,” he said.
“It was gunfire, and it didn’t stop from 10 pm until 4 am.”
Hussein was “lucky” to be on the sixth floor, which the regime forces did not get to. But below they searched everything, going from room to room, terrifying and humiliating students.
“They followed the students into the corridors. I saw several dormitories on fire and their windows smashed,” said Abu Taym, 22, an education student.
According to a number of witnesses, some of the fleeing students did not hesitate to risk their lives to avoid being caught by the security forces.
“They preferred to throw themselves from the third or fourth floor rather than get arrested. Some of them broke a leg or pelvis in doing so,” said Abu Omar, a spokesman for the “student activists” in Aleppo.
Members of the security forces broke everything they found, and even arrested female students, he added.
Videos posted online by students showed broken windows, overturned mattresses, collapsed shelves and scattered clothes. But worse was to come.
“They made us go down to the girls’ dormitories and forced us to undress and lie face down,” said Abu Taym. “Then they started to walk over us, hurling insults.”
Citing witnesses, Abu Omar recalls the same ordeal.
“They forced the students to strip off in front of the girls’ dormitories, they lined them up on the floor and trampled over them, shouting: “You want freedom? Here you go!” he said
AFP was unable to verify the claims, given the tight restrictions imposed on the foreign media by the Syria authorities, but the deadly raid follows months of protests in and around the university.
Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, warned that the events could mark a turning point for Syria’s second city, triggering residents to mobilise in solidarity with the students.
On Thursday evening, several hundred students were preparing to spend the night in the street, after the university announced it was suspending classes until final exams on May 13.