BEIRUT (AP) — The Syrian government allowed hundreds of students to leave two besieged areas near Damascus to take their year-end exams over the weekend, even as other suburbs of the capital came under fierce attack.
The government is eager to show that it is still providing services, salaries, and pensions amid a devastating civil war, including to areas it does not control.
On Saturday and Sunday, government forces allowed around 360 students from the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh and 68 students from the rebel-held town of Madaya to travel to government areas to sit their high school exams, according to activists and state media.
Both Moadamiyeh and Madaya are besieged by government forces, who have allowed relief groups only limited access— despite reports that civilians have died from starvation and lack of medical care.
The ninth-graders from Madaya who left to the nearby government-held town of Rawda Saturday were searched thoroughly by soldiers at the first checkpoint outside the town, according to Wafiqa Hashem, a teacher at Madaya's Mohammad Nassif secondary school.
It was the first time they were allowed to leave the town in 302 days, Madaya media activist Abdelwahab Ahmad said.
The siege will almost certainly leave a mark on the exam results.
Eighty percent of students have missed stretches of class this past school year because of hunger or cold, Hashem said. She said during the worst periods of the siege only five or six students would attend class at a time. Doctors Without Borders reported 16 siege-related deaths in Madaya in January alone.
"They were fighting for their lives, but they will make all efforts" to pass their exams, said Hashem.
Schools also struggled with power cuts and other shortages.
Since the government began allowing aid into the town earlier this year, student health improved. "They are playing sports again," said Hashem. But teachers have not had time to catch up on their curriculums.
The United Nations and international relief organizations are calling on the government, the Islamic State group, and rebels to allow sustained and unfettered access to the nearly half a million people — the vast majority of them civilians — trapped in besieged areas around the country.
Siege Watch, an independent monitoring group, calculates the number of Syrians living under siege at over one million. Both the U.N. and Siege Watch say the government is responsible for most of the sieges.
Education Minister Hazwan al-Wuz hailed the first week of exams as a "rejection of the ignorance that the nation's enemies are striving for," according to state media, which reported that rebel factions in eastern Aleppo forbade students from crossing over into government-held western Aleppo to take their finals.
But even as besieged Moadamiyeh was permitted to send students to sit their exams, neighboring Daraya — another suburb under siege — was attacked with missiles presumed to be from government forces, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group that monitors the conflict from Britain.
The Daraya Council said the missiles scorched a neighborhood in the already demolished suburb. The U.N. estimates between four and eight thousand people still live inside Daraya, down from a pre-war population of over 70,000.
An aid convoy from the International Committee of the Red Cross, the U.N., and the Syrian Arab Crescent aborted its delivery to the suburb Thursday after government forces removed baby formula and medical supplies from the trucks. The government had already refused to permit food as part of the delivery. It would have been the first humanitarian access to Daraya since 2012.
Associated Press writer Albert Aji contributed to this report from Damascus, Syria.