DOUMA, Syria: Syrian children love playgrounds like kids all over the world but in rebel-held towns near Damascus swing sets are made of spent rockets and jungle gyms are tucked underground. Eastern Ghouta, a besieged opposition stronghold east of Damascus, has been battered by regime air strikes and shelling since Syria's conflict erupted more than five years ago. Since then, children have grown accustomed to warnings not to play outside - but the grown-ups are finding creative ways to make sure kids can still have fun.
In Douma, Eastern Ghouta's largest town, children sprint towards red-and-black swings made of rockets which government MiG fighters jets once rained on their hometown. The sets were made by Abu Ali Al-Bitar, a 40-year-old house painter who collected dozens of rocket debris, welded them into swings and then gave them a fresh coat of paint. "At first, my neighbors thought I was crazy. They didn't realize I was going to make children's toys out of this," he tells AFP while sitting next to one of his creations. "It was a huge surprise for everyone when I came outside my shop one day carrying a swing."
Fellow townspeople urged him to build more sets, and farmers brought him rocket and shell debris that had crashed on their lands on the outskirts of Douma. "This is how we made the impossible, possible - that something used to kill can be turned into a toy that makes children happy," said Abu Ali. A dozen children clamber onto swing sets nearby, taking advantage of clear skies after a fragile truce brought a lull in air strikes and shelling on the town.
Ten-year-old Hanin - who lost her right hand in a rocket attack on a local market - giggles as she swoops through the air in one of the swings. And Ghadir, nine, says he's grateful to Abu Ali for making new toys for Douma's children. "Bashar Al-Assad sent rockets to kill us but Uncle Abu Ali didn't want us to be sad, so he turned them into toys to make us happy," Ghadir says.
More than 300,000 people have been killed in Syria's war, which has ravaged the country's education system. The United Nations estimates that at least 2.1 million Syrian children and teenagers do not have access to education. In Arbin, another rebel town in Eastern Ghouta, kids ran down concrete steps into a dimly-lit, rocky tunnel that lead to their unconventional playground. It is a vibrant and safe area, with its own merry-go-round, a mini ferris wheel that almost grazes the ceiling and booming music.
Hassan, who works with a local civil society group, says volunteers rent these underground playgrounds to keep the children entertained, including during last week's feast of Eid Al-Adha. "We decided to rent out spaces underground, in basements. They have playgrounds, rec rooms, and even a theatre," he tells AFP. "We planned a lot of activities for the kids and gave out gifts to make them as happy as possible during Eid." Children pull themselves up on a net of ropes and zip down brightly-colored slides, while mothers wave from a mezzanine overlooking the cheerful scene. "We had a party in the basement so that no one has to be afraid of being in the street," 10-year-old Yumna says timidly. "Here, the world is safe." - AFP