KAFR BATNA, SYRIA - The shrill bell sends hundreds of students rushing toward their classrooms in a town that only months ago was the scene of fierce fighting between rebels and regime forces near Damascus.
Their hometown of Kafr Batna, in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region, was recaptured by the government just this spring after a blistering offensive against opposition factions that had held the area for nearly five years.
More than 4 million Syrian students are heading back to school this month in areas under government control across the country, the Education Ministry says.
In a modest classroom, Batoul Jardat chats with high school students enrolled in her Arabic-language course.
The instructor, 30, is herself a Kafr Batna native, but she fled five years ago for the relative safety of Damascus.
She returned earlier this year after the army announced that Ghouta and Damascus as a whole were finally “safe.”
Like her students, Jardat said she is still getting used to a new routine.
“I feel strange, just like them,” said the young woman, dressed in a white headscarf, long overcoat and blue-and-white striped T-shirt.
“Everything is new — the students’ faces, the classroom seats, the repaired school walls,” she said. “Even the quiet is something new and unfamiliar for both me and them,” added Jardat.
‘Time to give back’
Jardat tries to break the ice with her 30 students, who are seated on simple wooden chairs between bare walls.
“I asked them what they did for the summer break, but they were surprised by the question and no one answered,” she recalled.
Then “some said, ‘We counted the artillery shells.’ Others laughed sarcastically. Some said, ‘There’s nothing beautiful in life.’ “
Jardat said she expects none of her students have “lived a normal childhood or a stable life.”
The school year ahead, she said, will be “a real challenge.”
“There are tons of difficulties — we don’t know what kinds of curricula they were studying before, and most students are in a bad psychological state,” she said.
Sitting behind a small table in a corridor between classrooms, Samar al-Khateeb peers through her glasses at endless papers brought by parents to enroll their children.
“We have 19 classrooms, but we’re looking to open more as the number of pupils keeps increasing,” said the administrator in her 50s, a light yellow headscarf framing her face.
“We’re registering around 70 new students a day.”
Al-Khateeb says she is delighted to see pupils return to the school from which she graduated years ago.
“My roots are here, and these are my people,” she said.
“This land has given me so much, and it’s now time to give back.”
Eastern Ghouta has around 50 schools, Deputy Minister for Education Abdelkarim Hammad says, but there are no official statistics on the number of pupils.
In Kafr Batna last week, six had reopened — though one of them was still undergoing repairs.
‘Vocabulary of war’
Syria’s war has killed more than 350,000 people since it started in 2011 with a violent crackdown on anti-government protests. Assad’s regime has repeatedly been accused of using chemical weapons in its fight against rebels, including this year in its battle to retake eastern Ghouta.
It has also damaged the country’s infrastructure, including schools.
The Education Ministry says the government has rehabilitated 5,000 schools since 2011, including 785 so far this year.
In Eastern Ghouta, residents lived under crippling government siege before a deadly regime blitz and surrender deals led to the last rebels being bused to the north of the country.
In the school yard, 17-year-old Abdelrahman kicks a soccer ball around with his classmates. He has lost many other classmates in the seven-year war.
“We’ve all been dispersed. Some of us died, some left to northern Syria,” said the teenager, his black hair slicked back and wearing a fresh shirt on for school.
“Just a small number of my friends are still here with me to finish their education,” he said.
In another part of town, Ammar Hajjo’s mother grinned as her 13-year-old returned home from school.
After years of worry every time her son slipped out the door to study, the mother in her 40s says she is finally breathing a sigh of relief.
“He was scared of going to school, and I was petrified he would be blown up or hit by artillery fire,” she said.
“In past years, he has learned nothing but violence and the vocabulary of war,” she said, but he could now take up computer science or foreign language classes.
“I hope he can now catch up on what he missed so that he can realize his dream of becoming an electrical engineer.”