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'Little Palestine': How History Will Remember Assad's Siege of Yarmouk

Over the course of the ongoing decade-long Syrian conflict, documentation of the war and its effects has always been desired by the outside world

Over the course of the ongoing decade-long Syrian conflict, documentation of the war and its effects has always been desired by the outside world. From footage spread on social media to entire masterpieces produced by those who lived through it, such as the movie 'For Sama' in 2019, those who were fortunate enough to only witness the conflict were able to catch glimpses of the atrocities committed by the Syrian regime, its allies and the numerous opposition groups on the ground.

The period resulted in the emergence of a generation of unlikely filmmakers and directors, who picked up their cameras and decided to record exactly what they saw around them, without any certainty of whether the world would, one day, see it or if they would even survive the ordeal. Abdallah Al-Khatib was one such individual.

What made his situation even more unique, though, was that he was not just in Syria but in one of the areas where the regime of Bashar al-Assad and his loyalist forces laid siege to. The Yarmouk camp—that site which was home to hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees since the Nakba and their exile from Palestine in 1948—had all the roads leading to and from it blocked off by Assad's forces while they held checkpoints on the camp's outskirts.

Since the siege was enforced in 2012, the regime starved the camp's population and forbade international aid from getting in. Anyone who dared to escape through a checkpoint was arrested, disappeared and often tortured to death.

Speaking to me about his experience, Khatib revealed that he initially had no plans on releasing his own film. Using the camera of a friend—Hassan Hassan, who attempted to leave but was detained and tortured to death—Khatib filmed footage of the situation within the camp for others who would use it outside to produce their own films. "I thought I would die" in the siege, he told me, and had no idea if he would ever escape.

Prior to the outbreak of the Syrian Revolution, he had worked with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) while studying sociology at the University of Damascus, planning to continue his life in Yarmouk and to contribute towards the Palestinian population's well-being. The Assad regime's brutal crackdown on protestors throughout the country and the ensuing siege on Yarmouk changed that.

Yarmouk is moving from being a refugee camp to a Damascus neighbourhood

Like most of the country, Yarmouk and its Palestinian residents faced the full force of the regime's repression, and Khatib's film has an intense way of showing that. With starvation ravaging the camp and aid resources running dangerously dry, the camp's inhabitants—including numerous children—could be seen picking weeds out of the ground to eat them, both raw and to be cooked as a soup. Undernourished babies and skeletal figures could be seen throughout the camp as testimony to Assad's long-perfected strategy of 'siege and starve' warfare.

Aside from the obvious human rights violations that this strategy resulted in, the fact that it targeted Palestinian refugees en-masse was also seen as a contradiction of the Assad family's long-perpetuated myth that it supports Palestinians and their historical plight. When asked whether he—as a Palestinian from Syria—saw the siege and other atrocities by the regime against his people as a betrayal, Khatib disagreed.

Rather than a betrayal, the siege "was rather a continuation of the series of crimes committed against Palestinians, and the Syrian regime never leaned towards the Palestinian cause at all." He stressed that, through acts such as historic massacres and the targeting of hundreds of Palestinian fighters, "the Syrian regime used the Palestinians as a card of pressure for its own good in order to reach its own goals."

Throughout the film, the viewer often notices that, contrary to popular Western notions of what would take place in an apocalyptic scenario, the inhabitants of the camp acted with an air of dignity and upheld much of their joy and laughter despite their condition. Khatib insisted, however, that it "was actually nothing exceptional to us as Palestinians, but you can also see it in other parts of Syria and you could also see it in Afghanistan."

The important question is, he explained, "who is making the film and how do they want to portray them? Western media is used to picturing us as broken people, as victims and in that sense only as numbers."

The siege on Yarmouk may have ended a few years ago, but the ordeal left long-term effects on him and others who survived it. When he eats, uses electricity, showers with running water, and other basic daily tasks, he says he remembers the siege. While there was no physical effect on his body, he admitted that it left a mark on his soul and psyche.

'Today I am a doctor, but first I am a fighter'

That impact was most obvious when he was about to title his film 'The Siege within Me' rather than the current and final title of 'Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege.'

"There are also positive aspects," he said, recalling when everything was locked down during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. "It didn't make such a big difference for me because I had lived this experience before." When social media apps like Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram also temporarily shut down this week, he mentioned that it did not bother him because "I lived in situations where they were not available."

The siege reportedly gave Khatib immunity against certain aspects of life, as well as allowing him to see the true value of things. "We have to realise that we live in a consumerist world. We value things that pass by, that can break, like a refrigerator. We do not consider the true values like the relationships between people, for example, or the human being itself."

When hearing about the growing and increasingly vocal class of public figures, academics and journalists who support the Assad regime and echo its claim that it is only fighting terrorism, Khatib compared them to a thief who "would ask himself for a moral excuse to rob the bank."

By using the rhetoric of fighting terrorism, Damascus and its supporters aim to justify their atrocities and crimes against humanity. "Everyone always tries to find the moral justifications, although in the end they are political and economic interests."

He added that the entire concept of fighting terror using atrocities is "the rhetoric of the superiority of the West," referring to the popular narrative following the state of the US-led 'war on terror.' "This serves the interests of the West, so the whole world circles around them and their interests. We should not accept in the very beginning this rhetoric of fighting terrorism," Khatib insisted.

Abdallah Al-Khatib's film 'Little Palestine: Diary of a Siege' is, therefore, the intimate and revealing—with dashes of humour and wisdom—account of that siege of Yarmouk camp, brought to us by hard copy footage smuggled by Khatib's friends, once he fled Syria to Turkey and then Germany, where he now lives. It will be screening in London on 13 and 15 October, as part of the British Film Institute's (BFI) London Film Festival.

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