DOUMA, Syria – Standing in line in the courtyard of their school in the capital Damascus, scores of Syrian girls in pink and blue uniforms saluted the flag and sang the country's national anthem. A few miles away in a suburb, children played in the courtyard of a rehabilitated school, where shattered windows were replaced but charred walls and pockmarks from bullets remained on the building facades.
With fewer areas in active combat in Syria, more children are going back to school this year, the Syrian government said, putting the number at 4 million.
Keen to project an image of normalcy, the government said it has rehabilitated over 400 schools over the last two months alone and called on students to return to wearing school uniforms, shed in years of conflict.
"This is to reaffirm that we have reached victory phase . which means things should settle down, including in education," Education Minister Hazwan Allwaz told the pro-government Al-Watan newspaper in comments published at the opening of the academic year Sunday.
The war is far from over, however, and its devastation has been particularly scarring for the country's children, including those who fled the conflict, Geert Cappelaere, regional director of the U.N. Children's agency UNICEF, said.
Loss of families' livelihoods, pervasive poverty, trauma and continued insecurity — even in areas where fighting has ended — as well as severe aid funding cuts are among the biggest obstacles facing Syria's children.
Some 2 million kids in Syria remain out of school. Nearly one out of three Syrian schools is out of service. Some 180,000 qualified teachers have also left the system. Since April, 31 children were killed by unexploded ordnance, according to UNICEF, including in areas where fighting ended.
In northwestern Syria, where the government is threatening an offensive in Idlib province, 1 million children — many of them already displaced more than once by the conflict — are bracing for a bruising military campaign.
Conditions are also difficult in neighboring countries, where more than 4 million Syrian refugees live, over half of them children. At least 700,000 refugee children are out of school, and many more are at risk of dropping out.
In this new phase of the war, donor countries are debating how to best to pool their funds.
The Syrian government argues it is now safe for the refugees to return home. The U.N. and other agencies say it is too early but are facing budget shortages they fear will limit services and give refugees the impression they are being pushed back. Donor nations, already tiring of providing aid in multiple conflicts around the region, have been reluctant to put more money into the prolonged Syrian war, particularly when a political resolution is elusive. In countries hosting refugees, donors look to directly support local governments rather than through aid organizations.
"The reality is the children become once again the playball of a solely political game, the government on the one side and the donors on the other side," Cappalaere said. "Ultimately we are standing in the middle and we are crying out loud on behalf of the children of Syria."
Allwaz, the education minister, said UNICEF has cut assistance to students — including a million school bags — "under the pretext that international funding has dropped," he said.
UNICEF says its funding inside Syria is short $40 million of its needs, a 43 percent gap.
Some of the cuts were a reaction to government restrictions on his agency's access, Cappalaere said, including access to areas recently captured from the opposition, or independent monitoring of spending.
In Douma outside Damascus, even on the first day of school Sunday, parents were still registering their children for government-run schools. Forces recaptured the area earlier this year after years of rebel control.
One principal said over 1,800 students had enrolled in her school, which had 350 students in previous years.
"There is a big turnout" now that the fighting has ended, said Malak Rislan, principal of Seif al-Dawleh elementary school. Many schools offer morning and evening sessions to accommodate the growing numbers.
Taghrid Hailani, 27, said her four children, between 3 and 11 years old, have been home-schooled for years because of the shelling and now lag behind. "They can't read or write. . I am glad that they will return to school."
Yasser Hijazi said he kept his children at home because the rebels changed the school curriculum, teaching their "own interpretation of religion."
During recess, the bullet-pocked and charred facades of the school buildings provided shade for the children playing in the courtyard.
In Lebanon and Jordan, UNICEF funding shortfalls were at 48 and 49 percent, respectively.
UNICEF reduced the number of refugee children getting school assistance from 55,000 last year to 10,000 this year in Jordan, said Rob Jenkins, UNICEF country director. More than 50 percent of the 670,000 registered refugees are children.
In Lebanon, the country with the world's highest concentration per capita of Syrian refugees, the cuts meant 20,000 children lost informal education, homework support and basic school rehabilitation. More than 55 percent of the 1 million Syrian refugees registered in Lebanon are children.
"We are concerned about what we call negative coping mechanisms, a decision taken by extremely vulnerable families — for example, early marriage, child marriage and child labor," Jenkins said.
In December 2017, Jordan's Ministry of Education reported that 31 percent of school-aged Syrian refugee children were not receiving formal or non-formal education. Child marriage has also increased in recent years: 2016 Jordanian religious court data shows that 36 percent of registered Syrian marriages in Jordan involved a girl younger than 18, four times more than in 2011.
In Amman, two brothers were searching through a pile of trash for scraps of metal and aluminum to sell to Jordanian factories. The 17- and 18-year-olds had dropped out of school since 2013 when they fled their hometown in Syria's Homs.
With a disabled father, they are their family's main breadwinners, earning at most one Jordanian Dinar ($1.4) a day, enough to buy bread.
Soon, their three siblings, aged 10, 13 and 15, may join them on the job after the funding cuts.
In their home in Amman's Jabal al-Nasr neighborhood, their mother Elham Sada wept. Her 10-year-old daughter, in a pink shirt that said "Mommy's Little Princess," knelt next to her.
Without the U.N. money, Sada said her kids won't make it to school.
"In Syria, it was amazing, with or without money, our family would help us survive," Sada said. "Here we are all aliens. No one knows us. There is no opportunity and we are so tired."
The father, Taher al-Jamli, said his family had been traumatized during the fighting in Syria, running from one house to another and losing touch with most of his family.
"We are too afraid to go back," he said.
Su reported from Amman, Jordan. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.