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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Have we forgotten Syria?

Published by UnHerd (20th September, 2019)

A few weeks ago, I bumped into Omran, a musician friend, who was serving salads, humous and pastries in a Lebanese cafe. We met three years ago through  our shared involvement in a project to reform a Syrian orchestra torn apart by the nightmare that has descended on that Middle Eastern nation. A singer from Damascus, he became a refugee in north London and harbours dreams of reviving his musical career. Before we parted, he told me insistently about a new film. ‘It is called For Sama,’ he said. ‘You must see it.’

Now I have done so — and I understand Omran’s proselytising for this remarkable film. The horror of Syria has sparked some superb documentaries already, showing how protests seeking freedom from brutal dictatorship spiralled into bloodstained despair of civil war. Yet For Sama offers something fresh that goes far beyond being simply another chilling reminder of humankind’s barbarity and the savagery taking place in a collapsed nation. It is a highly personal film — a memoir from a young mother to her new baby — that is one of the most intimate and powerful insights into the realities of war that I have seen.

The film tells the tale in piecemeal chunks of Waad al-Kateab, a headstrong young teenager who had left her family to study at Aleppo University when the Arab Spring protests swept the region in 2011. She reminded me strongly of some students I met in Syria that year, eating in their flat and talking late into the night of their hopes and fears after the first wave of demonstrations spread across the country. Like this film-maker, they were filled with courage, determination and a beautiful idealism as they sought to remove the shackles of Bashar Assad’s regime and friends began to disappear into his torture chambers. I often wonder what happened to them.

Al-Kateab picked up a camera rather than a gun, turning it on her adopted city as peaceful protests were met with bullets, religious fanatics muscled in and Assad’s regime fought back aided by Russia. Much of this we have seen before: the graffiti being sprayed on walls, the dancing demonstrators who think they have won their freedom, the helicopters dropping barrel bombs, the bodies pulled from rubble, the astonishing drone footage of an historic city destroyed on epic scale. One scene of terrified families pushing their belongings along the street as they try to escape the carnage looks eerily familiar, like a throwback to all those Second World War films.

There is value in reminding people that this appalling conflict, which flickers in and out of headlines, continues to corrode Syria and its surrounding nations. Like many foreign reporters, the war has played a significant role in my own life for much of the past decade after spending time in the country, meeting so many refugees and hearing endless tales of trauma and tragedy. Yet what makes this documentary so compelling is how those familiar images of wrecked buildings and destroyed lives are woven around Al-Kateab’s personal story as she falls in love with a young doctor called Hamza and gives birth to her daughter in the besieged city.

So we see the couple getting married, the scan of their baby in the womb, the new mother singing nursery rhymes to the baby like millions more around the world. Yet these mundane images of family life, and others of cooking and eating with friends, are set amidst scenes of mutilated bodies, missing people, mothers screaming over the corpses of their children, rivers of blood swept from the floor of the makeshift hospital that becomes their home. Al-Kateab kept filming and presents a woman’s perspective as the siege tightened and the slaughter intensified, some footage appearing as citizen journalism reports for Channel 4 News.

We glimpse what daily life is like when you are trapped inside terror, families caught in a conflict that so scars the world this century. Al-Kateab is not only a courageous journalist but also one capturing the cruellest aspect of this vile war: the targeting of hospitals by Assad and his Russian allies.

Hamza created his hospital with a few colleagues, several of whom are inevitably killed. Eventually it is the only one still functioning in east Aleppo, then it is bombed and they must find another site. This second clinic takes in 6,000 patients in just 20 days before the city falls. Once again this is also their home, where they share a room with another family of five, reduced to eating ant-infested rice as the regime noose tightens.

Sometimes the images of war are subtle, such as the look that passes across al-Kateab’s face as she works at her computer and a blast is heard nearby. There is a playful element as parents try to keep children entertained while crammed into small spaces behind sandbags. There is even a sliver of optimism in one gruelling scene showing frantic medical staff saving the life of an injured woman and the baby cut from her womb.

But mostly it is traumatic, such as when the child, with tears in his eyes, tells her that his friends are no longer there or — most painful of all — the two stunned boys covered in dust as they bring in their dead sibling, then kiss his head.

This power comes from a personal narrative, at times almost like a shaky home video, showing desperate attempts of normality during life in hell. The baby drinks milk in a nest of blankets — then a helicopter flies overhead, bombs fall and sirens scream again as ambulances bring more casualties to the hospital.

Sama does not cry like a normal baby, notes her mother. An exhausted Hamza, working all hours to save lives amid chaos, finds solace in the family’s garden that provides a metaphor for the desecration of war. He takes delight in his efforts to grow flowers and trees, the couple enjoy a fall of snow – then their small oasis is destroyed in another of the remorseless attacks.

This remarkable film, spliced together in stuttering form and set to a sombre score, seeks to explain to Sama why her parents joined the revolt and stayed in the ruins. At the start, the mood feels light when she says she cared only for the uprising. Later, the couple could have left the infant in Turkey with family members but chose to return in gripping scenes. At one point, as people file in near-darkness down to a basement during another assault, she asks her baby: ‘Will you ever forgive me?’

But this question of forgiveness goes far wider: to a world that accepts such horror and shows so little sympathy to its victims.

As Omran said, you must see this film.

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