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Syrian children attend public school in the Syrian village of Madaya on Sept. 26.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Abdo al-Fikri, 12, walks to school from his family home in the Syrian village of Madaya on Sept. 29. Because of the country's civil war, it has been a year since he and his siblings were last in school.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Children sit in their classroom in a public school in Madaya village in Syria on Sept. 26.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Three children pose for a photo in their classroom in the public school in Madaya village in Syria as classes resume on Sept. 26.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

A Syrian girl is shown at her desk in the public school in Madaya village in Syria on Sept. 26. Verses of the Koran are written on the wall above her.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Children play after school outside their homes in Madaya village in Syria.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Students run down the stairs at the public school in Madaya village in Syria.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

Ahmed al-Fikri helps his son Abdo, 12, with his homework in the family's house in Madaya village in Syria.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

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Photo essay | Education in wartime Syria

MADAYA, Syria (AP) — Clutching his books close to his chest, 12-year-old Abdo al-Fikri eagerly walked into a classroom last month in Madaya, an opposition-held village in northern Syria, his brother and sister trailing behind him.

It has been a year since they were last in school. The area has seen ongoing battles between opposition forces and troops loyal to President Bashar Assad, and like pretty much everything else in Madaya, the school was forced to shut down because of the violence.

Despite a constant risk of bombardment, Abdo and about 200 other pupils returned to school in a village desperately seeking normalcy in a time of war. “We go to school in fear,” he said. “They shell us with rockets, airplanes and missiles.”

The Syrian war, now in its third year, has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. The spark for the uprising against Assad was a school in the country’s southern city of Daraa, where teenagers sprayed anti-government graffiti on a wall, eliciting a heavy-handed response from the regime.

Millions of Syrian children — most of them in government-controlled areas — returned to school in September, despite the conflict that according to UNICEF has left 4,000 Syrian schools — or one in five — damaged, destroyed or sheltering displaced families.

Activists say that in rebel-held areas, which have largely descended into chaos, more than half the schools are closed. The few that are functional are constantly under threat. Late last month, a Syrian government air raid struck a high school in the rebel-held northern city of Raqqa, killing at least a dozen students attending their first day of classes, according to Human Rights Watch.

“Even students on their first day of school are not safe,” said Priyanka Motaparthy, Middle East child rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

In the Madaya school, a run-down facility in the northern province of Idlib, children brushed up on counting up to 10 in English. For many of them, just being back in the classroom is a reminder of what life was like before the war.

After school, Abdo returns home where his father, Ahmed al-Fikri, a member of the opposition Free Syrian Army, helps Abdo with homework. An AK-47 assault rifle rests against the wall as they dine.

“Our life has become so difficult that we have nothing to give to our children,” he said. “When we need to buy a pen, or to find books and other supplies, we don’t find anything in shops,” he says.

Ahmed al-Fikri said his son will eventually have to leave school to fight Assad’s army if the war continues. It will be a moral and religious duty, he said.

But Abdo, rushing to join his cousins in a game of football on the dusty streets of Madaya, says he does not want to fight.

Asked what he dreams of when he goes to bed at night, Abdo stayed silent for a long time before answering.

His dream, he said, is one day to become a doctor — his way of helping his people.

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