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As Fighting Continues in Damascus, Syrians Still Seek Sense of Normal Life

December 19, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
While the U.N. estimates that one million Syrians will have fled their homeland by June 2013, many Syrians are attempting to stay within their communities, and in shelters if necessary, in hopes of maintaining some sense of normality despite the losses and disruptions of civil war. Alex Thomson of ITN reports.
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GWEN IFILL: Syrian government troops have launched a major offensive to root out rebel fighters in the suburbs of Damascus. But many schoolchildren inside the capital are trying to go about their normal daily lives amid the bullets and the bombs.

We have a report from Alex Thomson of Independent Television News.

ALEX THOMSON: Yes, they yell, “We’re ready for lessons,” and in they come. And it’s 1,600 peoples at this Damascus school, two shifts across the day.

Under the ever-watchful eye of President Assad, reading lessons for children in a city, a country at war with itself. What kind of things are these little girls seeing beyond the school gates?

ABDUL KADER AMOURI, head teacher (through translator): We as educators don’t support one side or the other.

Our concern is for the child to learn. So we keep the school open and help with their fears. We can’t do as much as before, but the key thing is to try and deal with their anxiety.

ALEX THOMSON: Up down, left, right, two, three, four. Out in the playground, it’s a P.E. lesson, exercises, including run to the wall, touch it, and running back. Here, the running is for fun, but beyond the school walls, a shell or a mortar can land anywhere any time. Running can be a matter of life and death.

For obvious reasons, the killing of small children and teachers in and around school buildings is pretty near the top of the news agenda at the moment. So, it is that in this educational district and the one next door alone, in the past two weeks, 35 small children and two teachers have been killed.

The security building next to the school was car-bombed recently, leaving a staff candid about the problems they face here.

ABDUL KADER AMOURI (through translator): Lot of children had to leave their areas, friends, teachers, and move, which is very difficult.

Also, we get students pushed out from places, so the school is new to them. We do our best to help, but it is beyond us. It is way too big.

 

ALEX THOMSON: And then little Zera Asadi said she wanted to sing us a patriotic song, but she was soon overwhelmed by the general chant, “God, Syria, Bashar al-Assad.”

Asked to draw a picture, these little artists come up with tanks, guns in the colors of the government flag. This is one of several shelters across Damascus for people displaced by the fighting.

FILAS TABOUSH, Syria (through translator): The reason we’re doing this is because we have seen what happens to Syrians who have to leave the country for refugee camps. They’re treated very badly. We don’t want that to happen again.

ALEX THOMSON: They may wear anoraks, which are in fact the flag of Assad’s Syria, but they claim anyone here is welcome, whatever their political affiliation.

Perhaps, predictably, we couldn’t find anyone here who said they supported the rebels.  Nihayam Mruhe said, any opportunity to go home would be lethal.

NIHAYAM MRUHE, Syria (through translator): They threaten me if I go back, because I didn’t go to protest there, because I support the president.

ALEX THOMSON: In a place where Assads, Sr. and Jr. stare down, how open can you be? As families eat, one man still wouldn’t speak openly, even in denouncing the rebels, in a place like this.

MAN (through translator): Sometimes, I have to go home to pick up stuff. The rebels are not in the house, but they have surrounded the area. If they see me criticizing them, they will liquidate me.

ALEX THOMSON: And, yet, just a mile or two away, Damascus’ OldCity, mosques, maybe churches. Inside the famed Haretna restaurant, Sunnis dine alongside a christening party and a nun.

The world of hair straighteners blends with the world of hijabs. It is a cocoon in a city, a country where religion and politics are tearing things apart.