Samir Qutaini dropped out of school because he was never any good at his studies, and despite dreams of becoming a professional footballer, he ended up in his father’s shop selling mobile phones.
Samir’s story is not unlike that of thousands of other 17-year-olds stumbling towards an uncertain future. Except Samir is Syrian, and he traded mobile phones for an AK-47 assault rifle to become a rebel fighter.
“The only thing I miss about school is playing football with my mates,” Samir says. “I’m a centre forward and, truth is, I score. My dream was to play alongside (Lionel) Messi and (Andres) Iniesta,” Barcelona’s stars.
His reverie is interrupted by a nearby explosion, and he sets aside his rifle and warms his hands at a small stove.
Home is now an abandoned grocery store in the Salaheddin quarter of the northern city of Aleppo, devastated by months of shelling and street fighting.
Except for Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels dug in there, and President Bashar al-Assad’s soldiers struggling in vain to root them out, the place is desolate.
Since he left his real home in the eastern city of Idlib months ago, Samir’s family has been a group of other teenagers. At 15, Abdel Khader Zeidan is the youngest. Mohammed Bassar, 18, is the oldest.
Like all soldiers, their minds are full of memories of what they left behind and reflections on the nature of war, its stark contrasts of life and death.
Abdel Khader, a red scarf framing his boyish face, is too young legally to drive, but “don’t let my age fool you. I’ve been fighting for five months and have killed a number of soldiers,” he says.
His school closed because of the fighting that has rocked Syria since March 2011 and that observers say has cost more than 44,000 lives.
“Every day I watched on television how the army was killing innocent people, and I didn’t want to stay at home waiting for them to kill us also.
“I remember the day I decided to go off to fight, and my parents began to cry. I speak to them once a week to let them know I’m okay, but my mother always cries when we say goodbye.”
Mohammed Obori, 16, sits nearby playing with a toy tank he found in an abandoned house, its batteries long dead.
“It’s my lucky charm — I take it with me everywhere. When I get bored I play with it.”
He says his father was already an FSA fighter in their home province of Idlib. “It was he who encouraged me to sign up and come here to fight.”
Mohammed doesn’t like to think about his family or talk about them, “as it helps me keep my mind on the war,” in which he says he has killed five soldiers.
He misses his warm bed at home and something to eat other than the daily fare of chicken and kebabs.
Mahmut, the oldest and most seasoned of the group, does not like to talk much about the war.
“I don’t know if I’ve killed anyone or not, and I don’t care,” he says. “I just know that I shoot at them and they shoot at me. Allah guides the bullets.”
“Before I signed up I’d never touched a gun, and the thought never entered my mind to use one.”
But there is no love lost on his part: he says he was stopped once by shabiha (pro-government militiamen) and beaten unconscious before they robbed him of everything he had.
When it is all over, Mahmut wants to return to school and eventually to university to study medicine or nursing, “something useful to society.”
For now, he deals with the fact that his parents “didn’t agree with my coming to fight, which is normal. I’m the oldest child, and they didn’t want me killed.
“But even though they don’t say it, they’re proud of me — especially my father, who was the same age as me when he joined the uprising” against Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in the 1980s.
Later, as the boys accompany a journalist up one street, their rifles at the ready, Samir reflects on war.
“It’s not all that bad. People die and that, but in the end it’s like a video game,” says Samer, an avid fan of the “Call of Duty” series.
“I’m really good at it, especially in sniper mode,” he says.
Here is where teenage fantasy morphs into the reality of modern combat.
Samir says he actually is a sniper. When they get back to base, he shows off a rifle, complete with telescopic sight. Whether his story is true never became clear.
But there are no video game fantasies for Mahmut, the most sensible of the four.
In the real thing “there are no second chances — you only have one life.”