Syria conflict: School in a time of war
- 20 September 2012
- From the section Middle East
In Nahla Zaidan school, young children stand tall in blue uniforms, orange scarves knotted carefully, singing their national anthem with as loud a voice as they can muster.
Even the youngest know most of it by heart, saluting as best they can as they sing praise to an army that keeps them safe.
In this heavily protected central neighbourhood of Mezzeh, it is not just a song. In Syria, it is back to school at a time of war.
The United Nation's Children's Fund, using government figures, estimates that about 10% of schools across Syria are shut - 2,000 damaged or destroyed, and 607 used by displaced persons.
This school in Mezzeh took in 100 new students this term who came from areas where schools did not open, or parents felt it was not safe enough.
No official figures are available for Damascus schools. To say schools are shut is to admit the government has lost control in some parts of the capital.
Ignoring the bombs
"Are you happy to be back at school?" asks the teacher Kozeh in front of a class decorated with pictures of Winnie the Pooh and President Bashar al-Assad.
A classroom packed with eager young children shouts "Yes!"
"Are you afraid of anything?" she probes more gently.
"No!" they loudly shout in unison.
As I sit down to talk to eight-year-old Fadi, the loud thud of a shell is clearly audible. "What's that boom boom?" I ask him.
"Oh, it's far away," he said with an impish smile and a dismissive wave of his hand.
Teachers here, most of whom still seem to strongly support their government, try hard to make children feel safe.
"Children are like a blank sheet of paper," reflected the counsellor Ruba Shikh Hasan. "We're trying to write good stuff on it."
"I didn't hear it," the feisty headmistress Sawsan Farah insists when another shell lands in the distance. "I just have the sound of the children's voices in my ears."
"The new school year is the renewal of life," she explained further. "The army is doing its best to help us. The explosions are far away."
But as we leave the school, we are told there are clashes just a few streets away, on the other side of a four-lane highway streaming with cars.
We try to drive to there to investigate. But it is not easy to move around in a city of many more checkpoints, including impromptu barriers where soldiers take up positions at the roadside.
Once they see we are travelling with a government minder, with an official letter of permission, we are allowed to move on, sometimes even with a friendly wave.
"You're welcome," says one soldier, who reminds us to "tell the truth".
But some roads in this neighbourhood are now completely blocked by concrete barriers.
We are stopped, and told we can go no further, at one entrance flanked by two heavily sandbagged positions adorned with Syrian flags and photographs of a stern-faced President Assad.
Even from the roads outside, the damage is clearly visible after weeks of a government onslaught against opposition fighters and activists who infiltrated this area, and many others, in mid-July.
Some houses lie in ruin. Mezzeh's distinctive cactus fields are just stumps in razed fields.
Some residents, who did not want to be identified, said people were still living in fear.
"Some people say the neighbourhood is safer now. But most people want to see change. It's just that we don't want it through war on our streets," one man said wearily.
Mezzeh is a microcosm of a wider city that is divided not just neighbourhood to neighbourhood, but even from one street to the next.
Many Syrians told me they stick to their own districts now, as movement through the city is strictly controlled.
In some areas of Damascus, streets are crowded, traffic is brisk, and shops are open although many businesses are clearly suffering. Every chic clothing shop seems to be slashing prices by up to 80%.
Some of the city's beautifully manicured parks are still full of families and young couples enjoying the warmth of a Damascene September.
But turn a corner, and there is another park crowded with displaced people who have nowhere else to go.
Activists and aid workers say areas on the southern outskirts, where the opposition has been strongest, are "disaster zones" after intensive government shelling.
An aid official allowed to visit one area said it looked as though an earthquake had struck.
There is still heavy fighting in some districts. And the sound of shelling goes on day and night.
Our BBC team has not been allowed near to see the damage for ourselves.
But from every point in this city, you can hear the shells landing. You can see plumes of smoke drifting across the sky.
But inside the walls of Nahla Zaidan school, there is still a more familiar ring.
Children shout the ruling Baath Party slogans that generations of Syrians have grown up with. There is no sense here change will come anytime soon.