DAMASCUS // The academic year began in Syria yesterday with children in central Damascus making their way to school and sitting through lessons accompanied by the crash of shellfire.
As smoke rose over the capital's southern suburbs, for many pupils there were no classes, their schools either home to refugee families, or closed by the violence that has choked much of the capital's densely populated residential fringe.
When the last school year ended two months ago, the sound of tank and shellfire was still a rarity in central Damascus. But since mid-July no single day has passed without shells or mortars being fired into one part of the city and its suburbs or another. Battle-scarred tanks remain deployed in a capital that has been ringed by several layers of army checkpoints.
Yesterday was no different. Small children wearing brightly coloured, oversized backpacks walked to schools in the heart of Damascus holding on to their parents' hands, the noise of outgoing artillery fire reverberating in the streets around them.
"My daughter hates these new sounds. She used to run out and look at helicopters when they came. Now she runs and hides when she hears them," said a Damascene businessman. His daughter is seven years old and now often wakes up in the night crying.
"If I could get her and her mother out of here and to somewhere better, I would," he said.
In neighbourhoods to the south of Damascus - where the shells were landing and where the now routine morning gun battles were being fought - residents frantically phoned displaced relatives and warned them to stay away.
"There'll be no school today in any of the places where there is violence," said a resident of the Qadam, one of the zones on the southern edge of the capital that has been hit by shelling and clashes between regime troops and armed rebels.
"There's no way for children to get to school, people can't even leave the house," he said, after two family members had called to tell him not to try to come home.
In Tadamun, Yarmouk and Hajar Aswad, all part of the capital's urban sprawl, residents reported similar conditions, with large numbers of schools either full of refugees, closed off by fighting and road blocks, or damaged from the conflict.
The academic term also did not begin in Harasta, to the north-east of the capital, residents there said. "There's no school. We're barely surviving. Things are in chaos. It's not possible," said a father of two from the district. His family has already moved twice in an effort to find safety, and now live far from the school his children once attended.
"Every time you go out of the door you don't know if you will come back alive, at every checkpoint you might disappear forever. How can we send our children to school under those circumstances?" he asked.
In Daraya, to the south of the capital, activists have been preparing temporary schools. The area rose to international prominence last month after a military assault there killed more than 400 people - mainly civilians according to opposition groups; armed insurgents according to the Syrian authorities.
"Just as we have field hospitals because the government health system has stopped working, we are setting up field schools, where local teachers will hold classes for the children so they don't lose their education," said an activist in Daraya.
These volunteer-run schools will drop the political lessons mandatory in state schools, which extol the virtues of president Bashar Al Assad and the ruling Baath party. Instead, activists in Daraya said they would teach students about freedom of expression, democracy and the principles of citizenship, civil rights and equality.
"Our children will get an education and we will make it better than the one provided by the state because we are more committed to building a good future than this regime," said a teacher from Daraya.
Syrian families have grappled with the problem of what to do about their children's education with the country at war. Some have decided that, despite risks, their children will go to school where possible.
"My daughter sits at home, watches television and uses the internet. It may be safe but it's rotting her brain and it will kill her soul, it's no kind of a life for her," said another businessman in Damascus.
"We have talked about it as a family and we all agree she should go to school for as long as she can. There are dangers but in Syria now there is no way to avoid danger. We are all in God's hands," he said.
Sana, the official government news agency, said that more than five million students and 385,000 teaching staff had reported for classes at 22,000 schools nationwide yesterday.
It said all efforts were being made to ensure classes continued, but acknowledged some schools were unable to open, having been turned into refugee shelters or "sabotaged by the armed terrorist groups" - the term used by the authorities to describe rebels and those supporting the 18 month old anti-regime uprising.
Quoting government-provided figures, the United Nations has said that more than 2,000 schools across Syria have been damaged or destroyed, with 800 used as shelters for displaced people. UN officials have said it would be an "immense challenge" to keep the education system running.
Rebel fighters have used school buildings as bases in many of the provinces where the conflict has been heaviest, while government forces have also used them as detention centres and army camps, according to activists.