MADAYA, Syria — Clutching his books close to his chest, 12-year-old Abdo al-Fikri eagerly walked into a classroom in Madaya, an opposition-held village in northern Syria, his brother and sister trailing behind him.
It has been a year since they were last in school. The area has seen ongoing battles between opposition forces and troops loyal to President Bashar Assad, and like pretty much everything else in Madaya, the school was forced to shut down because of the violence.
Despite a constant risk of bombardment, al-Fikri and about 200 other pupils returned to school this week in a village desperately seeking normalcy in times of war. "We go to school in fear," al-Fikri said. "They shell us with rockets, airplanes and missiles."
The Syrian war, now in its third year, has killed over 100,000 people and displaced millions. The spark for the uprising against Assad was a school in the country's southern city of Daraa, where teenagers sprayed anti-government graffiti on a wall. A heavy-handed response then sparked an uprising which has since escalated into an insurgency and civil war.
Millions of Syrian children – most of them in government-controlled areas – have returned to school in the past two weeks, despite the conflict that according to UNICEF has left 4,000 Syrian schools – or one in five – damaged, destroyed or sheltering displaced families.
Activists say that in rebel-held areas, which have largely descended into chaos, more than half the schools are closed. The few that are functional are constantly under threat. On Sunday, a Syrian government air raid struck a high school in the rebel-held northern city of Raqqa, killing more than a dozen people, most of them students.
Human Rights Watch said in a statement Tuesday that at least 12 of those killed were students attending their first day of classes.
"Even students on their first day of school are not safe," said Priyanka Motaparthy, Middle East child rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.
In the Madaya school, a run-down facility in the northern province of Idlib, children brushed up on counting till ten in English. For many of them, just being back in the classroom is a reminder of what life was like before the war.
After school, al-Fikri returns home where his father, Ahmed al-Fikri helps him with homework. An AK-47 assault rifle rests on the wall as they dine, as Ahmed is a member of the opposition Free Syrian Army.
"Our life has become so difficult that we have nothing to give to our children," he said. "When we need to buy a pen, or to find books and other supplies, we don't find anything in shops," he says.
Ahmed al-Fikri said his son will eventually have to leave the school to fight Assad's army if the war continues. It will be a moral and religious duty, he added.
But, al-Fikri says he does not want to fight.
Instead he rushes to join his cousins in a game of football on the dusty streets of Madaya, grabbing hold of what is left of his childhood.
Asked what he dreams of when he goes to bed at night, al-Fikri stayed silent for a long time, then moved his head downward.
He said his dream is to become a doctor one day – his way of helping his people.
Here's a gallery of images from Madaya.
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