As children around the world start a new school year, for children in Idlib province the risks involved in going to school are increasing.
For many of the children in Idlib’s camps for the displaced, the stretch of blue and white tents, hot dusty mud in summer and dank, cold puddles in winter, is all they know.
Families in Idlib have often suffered the upheaval of displacement multiple times.
At least 6.2 million families including 2.5 million children are now internally displaced in Syria, according to UNHCR.
They’ve ended up in camps at the edge of Idlib, as far as they can run, but not far enough to escape the fear of air strikes or the advance of the Syrian army.
Despite the falling bombs, children have still been attempting to go to school.
I watched during a visit to a makeshift school in Idlib’s Atmeh camp as classes were held for children of primary school age. After the lessons a young girl took my hand and read to me from the Koran as other young children gathered around.
She was keen to show her language skills and I was eager to listen.
Nearby a fighter from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, stood watching us all, face covered, loitering with his gun.
Then as now, the question is what options there are for these children, caught quite literally in a no-man’s land.
An internationally designated terror group in control of much of the last major rebel held province on the one hand and a regime carrying out a deadly advance on the other is the situation facing these children as they grow up inside this protracted conflict.
Since April, the Syrian regime has launched a bombardment that’s estimated to have killed at least 800 people. A quarter of them children.
Schools are a target
Throughout the course of the war schools have been destroyed in airstrikes that are described as targeted attacks by many international aid agencies, which would be classed as a war crime.
As children around the world start a new school year, these attacks on schools have spiked in Idlib.
A school run by the NGO Syria Relief lies in ruins.
The wooden skeletons of school desks stand among the rubble.
The colour of a painted rainbow mural on one of the school walls cuts through the white dust coating the room. The aftermath of an airstrike.
A report by the charity details how, along with hospitals and aid facilities, schools are being deliberately targeted by the regime with four schools of 55 that are run by the charity recently destroyed.
“When areas are hit by conflict, children don’t go to school because they’re scared of dying," Charles Lawley from Syria Relief says.
“Parents aren’t sending their children because they’re scared they’re going to get killed, teachers don’t turn up for the very same reason. Education is severely hampered.
“Resources have to move from providing quality education to really basic things like getting children out of harm’s way.”
Since January this year, the UN has verified 87 attacks on schools across Syria.
Two in every five schools across the country have been damaged or destroyed since the start of the conflict, leaving millions of school aged children inside the country with no access to education.
Under International Humanitarian Law the targeting of schools is a war crime.
To try to protect schools and hospitals, there’s a process called ‘de-confliction’, where schools and hospitals can share their locations with the UN, who then share the information with Russia and the regime in a bid to protect these areas.
But it’s not working.
Some of the schools and hospitals that have shared their locations have been hit in airstrikes.
An education worker inside Syria told TRT World that trust in the process is low. "We did not de-conflict and will not do that because if we share the locations and a school is targeted, the whole community will say we are traitors and we are working with the regime and giving them locations, so it’s a really, really sensitive issue. The vast majority of education sector partners have not shared locations either."
If schools are the target, so too then are the children themselves.
A new report has been released by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, a UN-mandated investigative panel that collects evidence on war crimes and human rights abuses in Syria. It found that in the last four months in Idlib and surrounding provinces, there has been a dramatic escalation by the regime and Russia of aerial and ground assaults, destroying infrastructure, including schools.
One incident documented in the report saw the Abdul Rahman al Nasr primary school for girls hit by a missile, destroying its walls, the school bookshop and playground.
Witnesses told investigators that earlier in the day teachers had interrupted the handing out of diplomas due to the increased number of aircraft overhead.
On the ground, the impact on the children is clear. A young girl in a makeshift camp school holds up a maze she’s working on for me to look at. It’s dotted with drawings of artillery shells.
A disturbing child’s exercise, but this is the least of what many of these young children have witnessed in their short lives.
Nothing speaks more strongly to the impact of this conflict on children than witnessing the thumb-sucking, ear-plugging, terrified response of a young child to a motorbike backfiring or a plane overhead.
It’s easy to use terms like ‘lost generation’ to describe the situation where millions of children are growing up without access to safe education.
But these children aren’t lost, they’re trapped.
Living in a war zone, where their schools are now on the frontlines and their classrooms have become targets.