Editor's note: Standard-Examiner photojournalist Reynaldo Leal spent more than a month in Syria and Turkey on a freelance assignment. This is the first in an occasional series of stories about his experience.
ALEPPO, Syria -- The children sat huddled together at their desks. Small puffs of breath formed around their mouths as they repeated every word the teacher said.
It was cold in the concrete classroom. Without electricity or fuel for heaters, however, it was useless to complain.
Next door, the middle school had been rocketed by the Syrian Army. Debris from that explosion damaged one of the walls of the elementary school. The students were all moved to rooms on the first floor because the second floor was too dangerous.
Despite these conditions, 600 children and 20 volunteers continued to show up every day at the Mohammed Al-Masri School.
"We don't have children here in Aleppo, my friend," said Yusef, our interpreter. "Everyone is a fighter."
Excitement, then panic
I crossed the border from Turkey into Syria the day before with writer Malcolm Garcia. I imagined the devastation as we drove past a dozen rebel checkpoints in the countryside. Excitement surged through me. Then I wondered if it would be like the 2004 American offensive in Fallujah, Iraq, that I participated in as a Marine infantryman.
Panic replaced excitement as scenes from my time in war took hold and I regretted stepping on to Syrian soil and having to leave my wife and son for this assignment.
We arrived in Aleppo that night. The city was engulfed in darkness and the only signs of life were at the Free Syrian Army checkpoints along the way.
Suddenly, our driver began flipping the headlights off and on.
"What is that for?" Malcolm asked.
"There is a sniper," the driver said. "He shoots at cars here."
Malcolm sank into his seat. I did, too.
Hoping for help
That night, we stayed in our interpreter's apartment. Yusef had just graduated with a master's degree in architecture from the University of Aleppo when the government began shooting at protesters in cities like Hama and Homs.
He had always heard of men being arrested and sent away to secret prisons for speaking their mind and criticizing the government. But he couldn't understand why a man would kill his own people, why the military was so eager to murder Syrians.
The room was silent for a second, but the question, one that I would hear continuously throughout my stay in Aleppo, was finally asked between sips of tea.
"Why won't America help us?"
I became an unwilling representative for my country in Syria.
"I don't know," was my answer. He was visibly unhappy with my quick deflection of his question.
I felt inadequate. How could I tell this man who I had just met that my government couldn't help them the way he wanted? We couldn't hand over weapons, ammunition and funds to a revolution that involved Islamic groups.
We had done that already, to some extent, in Libya, and the blowback from that was already visible in Mali.
How could I tell him that the American people were just too tired of war? After a decade of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan and a bad economy, Americans were ready to look inward. Our problems came first, and Syria was not part of the equation.
Life in Aleppo
The next morning, we zigzagged through the war-torn city on the way to our first interview. The scars from the 21-month uprising were evident everywhere.
A shredded ambulance abandoned on the side of the road. A body, stretched out on a gurney and left outside the main hospital. Heaps of trash piled up in alleys. It was exactly how I had imagined it.
However, I saw something completely unexpected. The blown-up buildings and armed men were there, but so were the people trying to return to their normal lives. Shopkeepers and food vendors shouted out their specials as families walked along the streets.
"This was all liberated by the FSA a few months ago," Yusef said. "Inshallah (God willing), they will free more neighborhoods soon."
For those who stayed in the city and didn't escape to Turkey or Lebanon, this was life in the "free" areas of Aleppo, he said.
Moving on with life
People going on with their business, quietly hoping their homes weren't the next ones to be rocketed and that their children would be spared for another day and night.
It soon became evident that we had missed the major offensive in Aleppo. It would never be as bad as I imagined it on the ride from Turkey, and I was glad. The assignment quickly became less about blood and guts and more about the people and their will to survive.
As the days passed, I met and photographed FSA fighters, Syrian Army defectors, torture survivors, parents of martyrs, emergency room doctors and student activists.
Every one of them said they knew they were doing the right thing. Yes, the situation was bad, but everything would return to normal one day. They would all go back to their old lives, and it would be better once President Bashar Asaad fell and the country was free.
But everyone had a different interpretation of "freedom." Some said it meant doing whatever they wanted, while others felt it was important to stay within the parameters of their Islamic beliefs.
No one knew what the new government should look like or how problems with the Kurds and Alawites would be resolved.
What will happen once the government falls? Who will create the new order and laws? Who will be in charge, the activists or the fighters?
Although uncertainty isn't a good reason to endure a ruthless dictator, it will make things difficult long after the dust settles in Syria.