In Syrian classroom, lessons of war hard to unlearn

Farah Audi holds up the Syrian flag outside of a Damascus school. Keir Simmons / NBC News

DAMASCUS — In a classroom here, a Syrian boy spoke of seeing a man being shot dead. The boy is just 10 years old. He smiled as he recounted what happened, sitting behind a wooden desk.

For the children of Syria, his story is nothing extraordinary.

At break time, boys spilled out into the school yard, kicking and punching each other, putting friends in head locks and tumbling to the ground. One small 7-year-old boy looked bewildered as a school yard thug twice his size turned on him.

The scenes are no different from any other elementary school — except in one respect: Beyond these school walls, the sound of artillery can be heard. These boys play-fight during school breaks while their fathers fight a war that has ripped Syria apart for more than two years. The girls look on bemused.

"Men came came and attacked us," 10-year-old Jwatat said, back in the classroom. "In front of my home, armed men attacked. They killed a man in front of us with a pistol. I was scared, so scared. I still think about it before I go to sleep at night."

He added: "We thought the armed men would kill us, because they killed a man without reason."

Of the attackers, Jwatat said, "I hate them." He called them "terrorists."

Jwatat’s family here fled from Jobar on the outskirts of Damascus. He and the other 10- and 11-year-old children in his group are internally displaced, which means they left their homes but not their country.

Families struggle in Syrian suburbs under siege 2:28

"The terrorists, they came to our area, they caused chaos," said one girl, Alen. Next to her sat Aya, whose family escaped their home village two years ago.

"We were very scared from the terrorists," she said.

These children are barely old enough to know what terrorism means. Yet each of them used the word — perhaps learned at home — to describe the fighters trying to overthrow Syria’s embattled President Bashar Assad.

The school is government-run, and many of the pupils are from Assad’s religious sect, the Alawites.

Out in the school yard, the children lined up in regimented rows. At the front, 9-year-old Farah Audi held up a Syrian flag. Her first name means "happiness." The 800 students saluted and sang the Syrian national anthem. In Assad’s country, patriotism begins at a young age.

But back in the classrooms, the children learn English.

"How are you, I’d like to see you," they recited. Syria’s children learn the language of the West while saluting the president. Across Syria, many children don't receive an education at all. One report claims more than 11,000 children have been killed in the conflict.

On Thursday, a report from nonprofit organization Amnesty International said one extremist group opposed to Assad's regime was torturing people and imprisoning children as young as 8. And in another report, the United Nations condemned Assad’s forces for "widespread violations" of human rights. Both sides in the bloody ongoing conflict have become increasingly ruthless.

"We heard rockets and we were very scared, we went to my aunt's house and heard even more noises," says Shaed, 11. "We went to the market and it was filled with people running so we hid in our friends' home. After two days, we got back to our house, picked up the car and fled," he added.

The children’s teacher, Houda Essa, said they try to counter the education in war these children receive every day.

"We teach them that we are against war," she said, "and that we want all of our country in peace."

It’s a feeling echoed by her students — who all put up their hands when asked if they have nightmares.

When asked whether they want to see peace in Syria, every child threw up both hands with enthusiasm.


Hungry, homeless, helpless: Syria's children know too much about war