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As fighting takes place down the road, families return to rural Syria

Some Syrian families are attempting to live in relative normality, as fighting takes place down the road.

Hassan, a school principal, is eager to talk about anything other than Syria’s civil war.

He welcomes us into his family’s home, where he lives with his wife and three sons. They only returned a few weeks ago.

The neighbourhood where they live, Ma’ardes in rural Hama, still shows the scars of conflict, rubble litters the pathways. The area was first affected by armed conflict in early 2012 and over the next five years saw prolonged shelling, air raids and, at one time, alleged chemical attacks. The government only regained control in April.

Hassan is glad to be back but says there is still no reliable running water or power supply, and no form of heating for the upcoming winter.

Despite having very little, the family serve us piping hot Turkish coffee from small, ornate cups. It’s the first time these precious family heirlooms have been used since before the war. The family were relieved to find these ceramics survived in one piece, as they themselves hope to.

Down the road, Dr Majed Asker and his mobile health team work with UNICEF to vaccinate children against diseases and distribute high energy foods to malnourished children.

Dr Asker was diagnosed with polio when he was seven years old. Now, he vaccinates children against the once-eradicated disease that resurfaced in 2013.

He also treats children for leishmaniasis, a disease spread by the bite of certain types of sandfly. Easily treated if caught at infection, these bites have permanently scarred the faces of many children.

Now as winter bites in Ma’ardes, there will be more casualties from this conflict, but their deaths may be caused by freezing temperatures rather than bullets.

Two sisters are swaddled beneath heavy layers of charcoal grey wool, blankets given to the family last winter that have been resewn as pyjamas. With another freezing cold season already beginning, their mother has sacrificed her own warmth to cloak her daughters.

I capture photos of children as they play along a dirt path outside the clinic, and soon a crowd gathers. A 15-year-old boy named Ahmad cottons on to what I’m doing, marshalling children into position, helping me transcribe names and ages.

At one point, I try to draw the group around the corner, to find a new backdrop for the portrait photos.

Ahmad blocks my path, waving his hands. “Boom!” he yells several times.

Later we learn that the week before an eight-year-old boy was carrying his brother when he stepped on an explosive device. They were both killed instantly.

This is the reality for children living in Syria. For some, it is a daily struggle between life and death, for others it is a life of relative normality as fighting takes place down the road.

If you want to be part of UNICEF's life-changing work for Syrian children, please consider donating to our Syrian Children's Appeal.

Words and photos by Ethan Donnell. Ethan travelled to Syria at the end of 2017.