Tripoli, Lebanon - Walking in his school's courtyard, Houssam el-Meer, the principal of the Bab el-Tebbeneh Middle School, watches protectively over his students. The children are splashing water at each other and playing basketball. Suddenly, heavy gunfire erupts nearby. The kids start screaming and running in all directions, looking for safety. "Go back inside, there is nothing happening," Meer shouts, as children pour out of the school with their backpacks on their shoulders, ready to return home.
The school, in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli, is located on the frontlines of the conflict between the neighbourhoods of Jabal Mohsen and Bab el-Tebbeneh. Most people in Jabal Mohsen are Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam to which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad also belongs, and they support the Syrian government in the country's civil war. Bab el-Tebbeneh is a Sunni neighbourhood that supports Syria's rebels. The conflict between the two areas dates back to the Lebanese civil war (1975-1991), but the civil war in Syria has reignited tensions. Since 2011, there have been 18 rounds of fighting and hundreds killed.
"Look at this - a shell fell in the courtyard," Meer says, pointing at a small crater in the middle of the playground. "Water is dripping out from the roof because the water tanks have been pierced by sniper fire. We constantly need to change the school's windows or to call carpenters to repair what has been broken during the fighting. We do only the essentials because we don't have a lot of money."
Poverty and violence
Tripoli is one of Lebanon's poorest cities, and Bab al-Tabbaneh is its poorest neighbourhood. Poverty and violence are forcing children out of classrooms. When clashes break out, the school is obliged to shut down and the children stay at home.
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When the fighting becomes too ferocious, the Lebanese army even has to escort the children out of the school to protect them from sniper fire. According to Meer, last year the school was open only 98 days, while a regular school year normally lasts 175 days.
As a result, most children at the school are seriously behind academically. Many also drop out or change schools before they finish their education. The principal says that, four years ago, the school had 1,200 students; now there are a little more than 600.
"The school has already been forced to close for two weeks since January. Every year the school programme is less than what it should be. It jeopardises the children's education, especially when they have to pass exams to get into higher classes or university," the principal explains.
Lama Assoum lives in the neighbourhood and has been teaching English at the Bab el-Tebbeneh Middle School for three years. The 30-year-old says teaching in this environment is a constant challenge. "It's difficult, especially when suddenly you hear gunfire and bombing and you have to run. When the students hear fighting, they start screaming and all they want is to go home. It's tense and everybody is nervous. Children don't learn. All they think about is what is happening on the streets."
Sitting at his desk, 14-year-old Ahmad Dawood writes in silence as the teacher gives dictation. The small classroom is rudimentary. The grey walls are covered with children's graffiti and the chalkboard is pockmarked with bullets.
"Sometimes we are trying to concentrate on our studies, and suddenly fighting erupts. The snipers shoot at the school and at the children. A friend of mine who used to attend another school in Bab el-Tebbeneh was shot on his way out of school," the teenager says in a monotone. "Of course school is important, but the situation here makes it pointless. There is nothing to think about or to achieve. No future. Here you can't be sure that you will still be alive in two years. You are very happy if you come back home after a walk outdoors."
In the classrooms facing Jabal Mohsen, walls and windows are pierced with bullet holes. On one door someone has scrawled with a black pen: "The Sunni lions of Bab el-Tebbeneh will only kneel before God."
The janitor of the school is a slight, 30-year-old man from the neighbourhood. He is also a fighter with the Bab el-Tebbeneh militia. He says the first thing he does when the fighting starts is to get the children and the teachers out of the school. "Sometimes we fight from positions around the schools. If we don't fight, who will protect our families?" he asks.
Lama Assoum, the English teacher, disagrees, saying the fighting only feeds sectarian tensions and hatred among children. "All students here are Sunni. They hate the other side. One day a student asked me if I was Alawite. He said that if I was, he would not study at this school," she recalls, standing in the corridor.
Sitting among his friends in the classroom, Dawood has a strong opinion on the roots of this conflict. "This is an open war. It will never stop. We are the victims of the war in Syria. We are always the suspects and we are the ones who are paying for whatever happens outside Tripoli," he explains.
"When I see the mothers crying and the people injured and the dead bodies, of course I want to fight."