‘Fear and anxiety’ in Damascus
They had the misfortune to be a school only a hundred yards or so from a major security building in Damascus. That was enough. The car bomb was an Iraqi-style affair, perhaps almost a ton of explosive and the damage is still evident on the fabric of the school.
It is best not to name the exact location where 1600 children come in two shifts everyday, civil war or no civil war.
You see these keen young faces, six-year-old girls reading their Arabic at the whiteboard to the applause of their completely attentive class-mates and you wonder; what are they seeing outside school? What are they hearing?
“It’s all upside down,” says headteacher Abdul Kader Amouri. “School is not the big influence now, it is home. Of course they are anxious. All we can do is somehow keep the school open and deal with their fear and anxiety as best we can. But to be honest it is way more than we can deal with.”
It is the classic Syrian situation. Mr Amouri, clearly a kind, intelligent and thoughtful man, is deeply worried by a situation beyond his or anyone’s control now. Distant explosions echo around the district, as he points out that they do not care who a child’s parents support, it is only education which matters here.
Almost one entire wall of Mr Amouri’s office is taken up with heroic images of President Bashar al-Assad. The other walls are not without his image either. But this is deceptive. You should read nothing of anyone’s allegiance into this. It is simply the decoration of any public office.
Outside in the playground one little girl, Zeebra Asadi, asks if she can sing a patriotic song for our camera. Of course – and off she goes. She is however, immediately drowned out by a cacophony of chanting for Syria, for God and for Bashar al-Assad, which is taken up by every boy and girl in the playground.
This is a school still going in a time of war. Some have closed in the areas more affected by fighting and in many cases children from those districts enter schools like these. This district and the one neighbouring have not been badly affected by the fighting as yet. And yet…. the statistics are frightening, even here.
At a time when the killing of schoolchildren and teachers is understandably high on the international news agenda, 35 children and two teachers have been killed in these two districts in just the past fortnight, by a car bomb and by shelling. Across Damascus you will see other schools which have effectively closed, not because of direct fighting but to be used to house those displaced by that fighting.
Again the ubiquitous posters of Assads senior and junior beam down from the walls. In one such shelter the vigorous and enthusiastic volunteers actually sport anoraks fashioned out of the flag of Assad’s Syria. It seems a curious move since many of the displaced people are displaced by government shelling of their suburbs.
Men at war
In these shelters you will see a lot of girls in their early teens even already covered with the hijab. You will see their mothers. Perhaps their grandparents. But you will see very few of their elder brothers and fathers. They remain out in the suburbs, quite possibly fighting.
One of the many bitter ironies of this civil war is the fact that the government quite often ends up feeding and housing the women and children of some families, while the fathers stay back to fight that same government.
How far this goes and in what numbers is quite impossible to determine and it is equally true that many, many families displaced by the fighting would not come near any shelter run by the government for fear of reprisals and other unwanted visits from the highly visible ‘secret’ police who infest the Syrian state.
Equally, there are many profoundly grateful for government shelters with tale after tale of rebels forcing them from their houses to use the buildings for fighting.
A vision of tolerance?
But, this being Damascus – surely one of the world’s more schizoid capitals just now – you can completely escape all this in the enclosed never-never land bubble of the lovely old city restaurants. Walk through the famous old souks and narrow streets and marvel at that typically Syrian sight; church and mosque next door and almost touching each other.
Inside the wonderful restaurants immaculate squads of waiters tend to your every whim. You will find nuns and Imams here. Secret police relaxing in the same places as academics and politicians. You will see beautiful Syrian women demure in hijabs talking animatedly to their equally stunning friends with hair flowing free, straightened and coloured to within an inch of their lives.
A vision of tolerance, ancient in the making, it feels increasingly beleaguered in a sea of sectarian warfare out there beyond the old walled city.
Follow @alextomo on Twitter