Survival in Syria: Children still going to school, people still falling in love

Striving for normalcy in Aleppo, Syria
Striving for normalcy in Aleppo, Syria

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Striving for normalcy in Aleppo, Syria 00:52

(CNN)Shelled-out apartment blocks, AK-47s and black flags, tanks and Russian jets: the images we have of Syria, of death and destruction, omit any idea of life.

But life goes on.
"People are still trying to survive," said journalist Zaina Erhaim. "They are still getting in love, they're still getting their children to schools -- although now the schools are in basements, although the field hospitals are in basements."
    "They're going on with their lives. They still go to school. They still have shops. But things are different."
    Aleppo, where ISIS, other Islamists, moderate rebels, and regime forces all battle for control, has been ravaged beyond almost all recognition.
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    But even there, some semblance of normalcy -- or attempts at it -- exist. Children turn cemeteries into playground, Erhaim said.
    She recalled asking a mother -- a school headmaster -- how she could prevent her children from getting scared, especially during nights of extensive bombing.
    "She told me that she gives them sleeping pills so they won't be scared."
    Another mother, Erhaim says, told her that she's taken her children out of school -- not so much out of fear that they might be killed, but out of fear that they might be killed alone.
    "So the matter for her is not preventing her kids from being killed, but more like being killed together."
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    "It's frightening. But they are still there. They are still trying to live."
    It is some wonder, then, that Erhaim took the incredible step of moving to Aleppo from London, where she got her Master's degree.
    A Syrian herself, she told CNN's Fred Pleitgen on Monday that she felt an obligation to help.
    "I belong to that country, although it's in a horrible situation now -- but I belong to it. I belong to the people who raged against the regime in 2011, demanding their basic rights."
    Erhaim is now Syria Project Coordinator for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
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    She is trying, she said, to "speak more about life."
    "What we're only getting is just ISIS, regime bombing, and now lots of air forces interfering in our sky."
    "What is missing from the news is the actual life. That is still going on, not only in Aleppo but in Idlib and all those rebel-held areas that are being targeted on daily basis."
    She has also trained 100 citizen journalists to report on life themselves, to "spread the word."
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    "I think we're all becoming insane for staying there, for bearing this kind of life that we're living at. But in another way, because death is there every single moment, you actually learn how to appreciate every single moment because that might be your last one."
    War is nothing new for Syria, but the conflict has taken on a new dynamic in the last two weeks, as Russia has launched an intervention to entrench Bashar al-Assad.
    ISIS has made gains in Aleppo province since that intervention; Russia's strikes, the U.S. and NATO say, have not been primarily against ISIS but rather more moderate rebels fighting Assad.
    Watch Pleitgen's interview
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    Watch Pleitgen's interview 06:48
    When an American-led coalition began bombing ISIS targets in Syria a year ago, Erhaim said, they left "all those other Shiite, jihadists, militias, foreigners who are fighting on the regime side."
    The result "was a kind of an open recruitment letter for all those who are interested in joining ISIS."
    "And now with the Russian intervention, I think, like, they give the justification for every moderate Muslim Syrian to just be extremist and join ISIS. Civilians and moderates are stuck."
    Many of them are fleeing to Europe. "Most of the refugees that I know are actually emigrating not from Syria itself but from the neighboring countries.
    "So they are not running away from war, but they're running toward life, because they can't see the light at the end of the tunnel anymore."