BEIRUT (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of Syrians who moved into schools after air strikes and fighting drove them from their homes will be on the move again on Sunday when the government plans to start the school year despite unrelenting violence.
Panic has spread through displaced communities in roughly 800 schools around the country, each housing hundreds of men, women and children with nowhere to go.
“I‘m looking for a new place again because I know I cannot go back to Tadamon,” said Abu Ahmed, who fled the battered Damascus suburb where government forces used artillery strikes and helicopter attacks to push back rebels.
He and his family have spent months in a school in the central district of Mezzeh, a safer neighborhood.
“What’s the government considering? It’s weird that they want to solve the school problem by creating another problem.”
Since a pro-democracy movement started in March 2011, President Bashar al-Assad’s administration has played it down to give an impression of order, even after the killing of thousands of peaceful protesters turned the uprising into an armed revolt.
Even now that there is heavy fighting in every province, Assad appears determined to continue ruling as in peacetime and reopen the schools.
Education Minister Hazwan al-Wazz told state television last week the government was ready to start the school year on Sunday “despite the destruction of around 2,000 schools by terrorists”, a term authorities use for the anti-Assad rebels.
Many say that, in the heat of war, families will be too scared to send their children back and some teachers will remain home. In the suburbs, where rebels have continued the fight amid heavy bombardment, many parents laugh off the idea of school.
“Even if things improved, I would not send my children to school. We should not support the regime in any way,” said Khaled, 31, father of three from the Damascus suburb of Douma.
In rebel-held Syria, fighters have taken over the two-storey school buildings to use as bases. They have pushed the tables to the side to make space for guns and ammunition or sleeping quarters, and some classrooms are used for prisoners.
In return, Assad’s forces have dropped bombs over these converted schools and many stand in ruin. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) says that the ministry of education had reported that nearly 10 percent of 22,000 schools across the country have been damaged or destroyed.
UNICEF said on Friday that the Syrian government has already started moving the displaced out of schools to other public buildings including sports halls but did not say if there was enough room for all of the displaced.
The agency said it is extremely important that an estimated 2 million children of primary school age are able to go back to school to give some respite from the conflict, but added that it was not involved in moving families out of schools.
In neighboring Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, where 250,000 Syrian refugees have fled fighting, refugees have also taken residence in schools that were emptied for the summer.
Refugees in Lebanon who complained that they were told to find new accommodation as the school year started gave a small glimpse of what could happen in Syria on a larger scale: some camped in fields and abandoned buildings, other said they had no option but to return to their homes despite the violence.
Ben Parker of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Syria said only a handful of places have made arrangements for alternative shelter.
Even if the displaced were allowed to stay, Parker says life would be hard. “And in winter a lot of these places are not properly heated,” he said.
Parker said one option the government was considering would be to run double shifts for students to increase capacity in schools which can be opened -- a morning shift for half the students and an afternoon shift for the rest.
“STRANGE AND COSTLY”
Several teachers interviewed by Reuters said they had been told to prepare to start school. In cities around the country, residents reported that the government has started restoring and repainting schools damaged by the conflict.
“Elementary and secondary school starts next week, I don’t know how they’re going to make it all work,” said a high school teacher in Damascus, who asked not to be named.
“Teachers are upset about it,” she said, referring to the government kicking out the displaced. “Schools shouldn’t be stopped but the government should find other places. It seems like they expect charities and locals to take responsibility.”
Many believe the move is overly ambitious.
A 40-year-old employee at the Ministry of Education who asked to remain anonymous as he was not allowed to speak to the press said that the plan was a “strange and costly decision”.
“The government knows that a lot of teachers and students will not attend school, there are a lot of schools destroyed that have not been repaired. Also what about the books and other things that we need in schools?”
The Ministry of Education in Damascus appeared in chaos this week, with lines of people waiting outside. The website has been down for days.
The conflict, which pits a mainly Sunni Muslim opposition against a ruling system dominated by Assad’s Alawite minority, has also caused sectarian tensions that prevent schools from operating. Alawite teachers say they fear teaching in Sunni neighbors and vice versa.
“I worry for my life so I applied to transfer,” said Hassan, a 30-year-old maths teacher who is an Alawite but teaches in a Sunni area.
Those about to be displaced again say they feel lost.
“We don’t have an alternative plan. I think we might go to the mosque,” said Abu Khalil, 39, who moved with his four children into a school in Mezzeh from the southern Yarmouk suburb to escape bombardment.
“I am tired and I want to return to my home but I worry about my kids. I asked Red Crescent staff if the government has told them what will happen to us, but they don’t answer.”
Additional reporting by Dominic Evans and Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Dominic Evans and Philippa Fletcher