‘What do you want to do after the war?’ I ask Adnan, an amiable 18-year-old I meet in north-west Syria, in an area controlled by opposition fighters. ‘I want to continue my studies. If, well…’ He glances up at the sky. ‘If I don't die.’ Several months ago he was studying for the baccalaureate. Now he is at a training camp for new fighters preparing to join the battle against the Assad regime.
In a nearby village, small children run around, clambering over parked trucks. It is a weekday morning but they haven't been to school for months, their mother says, flapping a child away as she cuts vegetables. Many parents long ago stopped letting their children out of their sight. Now the schools here are closed anyway. Everyone gives a different reason for it. Some say the schools have been shelled. Others that they have been taken over by rebel fighters or people displaced from their homes. A popular theory is that the teachers can't – or don't want to – get through from Latakia city, a regime stronghold, because of checkpoints on the road. ‘And they were Alawites who didn't want to educate us anyway,’ one father says (he's not the only one to think it), as he describes the shoddy textbooks.
It was never easy to get an education here. Now it's almost impossible. In these villages, and many others across the country, all the young men have gone to fight. ‘They put us to shame for putting up with the regime for so long,’ says one of the old men who remained behind, ‘and now they are paying the price that we should have.’ When the war is over, one of his companions says, who will rebuild the country if the young are dead, injured or just downright ignorant?
Some parents and teachers have set out to do something about this. As the school year began, I met a headmaster from a small town in Idlib province. He had spent days scrubbing clean his school and scraping together books and materials so he could run basic classes for the children who were left. Abu Adnan, a commander in Latakia, is trying to get hold of workbooks, produced each year by the government, for his village. ‘But I fear whatever we do,’ he says, ‘this is a lost generation.’