By Gabriella Rutzler
Khaled Omar Harrah lives in the shell of a building that has been partially destroyed by air strikes in the city of Aleppo, Syria. We see men sleeping as the camera pans out from their rooms and into the devastated city. Sleep is their only experience of peace, when it is not broken by a call to a fallen building or bomb site. As our view is pulled away we see fish in a tank Khaled intends to use to make a pond near his home, resting on a small upholstered bench. The glistening, colourful shapes of the fish floating around their tank is an auspicious beacon of hope against the grey dust of war. Khaled is the principal narrative viewpoint in the documentary film. He works with a group called the White Helmets: a part of the Syrian Civil Defense operative in the city who respond with urgency to the attacks on civilians and their homes, pulling bodies and occasionally survivors from the rubble. The film follows his day to day activity, his dedication to creating moments of joy for his children, and the determination to “prevail or die” fuelled by community political rallies and camaraderie, until eventually the severity of the situation in Aleppo takes Khaled with it in a shattering conclusion.
This is by no means an easy watch. It brings into focus what viewers in the western world are only used to seeing in glimpses on news broadcasts, the encounters with the explosions only evident through mobile phone footage of a falling beam of light in the distance. It is a film that does not demand attention through dramatization but presents the brutality of Aleppo’s circumstances with a frankness that is refreshing and reminds us of our own discomfort. The importance of such a film at this time is evident. This is not a silent conflict, and its effects are cataclysmic for those who consider Syria their only home.
The UK’s position on the conflict is an ambiguous one. Despite supporting the White Helmets and their families, as well as encouraging Turkey to accept Syrians in the mass flight of refugees to the border, the UK supports the use of air strikes upon the ISIL-occupied zones of the country. The UK is not providing aid to those who seek refuge or to those who are being mistreated at the border camps. For the people of Aleppo, it is clear that the enemy are the “green jets” in the sky, the forces of Russia and Assad largely responsible for the obliteration of their homes and families, but US and UK-based air missile interventions are also unwelcome.
I met my flatmate Majd when I began my studies at the University of York this year, and I consider him to be a very close friend. Alongside watching The Last Men of Aleppo, I decided to formally record some of the conversations Majd and I had shared about his life in Syria, spending his childhood summers in Damascus, a tradition that stopped 8 years ago at the dawn of the Syrian crisis. I wanted to learn more about the lived experience of war, being forcibly separated from your heritage, and Majd’s time studying in the UK at great distance from the conflict.
Gabriella: What were your thoughts on first watching the film?
Majd: So the film was focused around a specific period of time when Aleppo was targeted and it really showed you the amount of damage there, just how bad the situation was. I liked the way that it really emphasised those ‘heroes of war’: people risking their lives to save who they can from the ruins.
G: Tell me about your relationship with Syria.
M: We went to Syria every summer for about 3 months when I was younger. I have a lot of memories of it, and there are certain values we have that we carry when going elsewhere, so it never felt like I wasn’t home when my immediate family moved to Dubai. Although I was born in Dubai, I still feel like I belong in Syria. I’ve always looked forward to going back in the summer, stay with my cousins and go out to eat at our favourite restaurants. I would wake up everyday to see my Jeddo [grandfather], I would kiss his hand, raise it to my head – this was a way of showing respect to the elderly and to acknowledge all of the things that they did for you. I’d go out onto the balcony and collect jasmine petals on a coffee saucer, give them to my Jeddo who would sit and smell them. I would sit with him and listen to music. There was something completely different about the lifestyle I lived when I was in Syria to the one I lived in Dubai. I got so attached, I felt like ‘this is where I belong’. Being told we couldn’t go back in 2010 was when I started to feel like something was missing for me. My mum was unable to say goodbye to her father when he passed away in Syria. Things like this make the whole situation feel very sad for me.
G: Did you ever go back while the conflict was happening?
M: I had to go back to Damascus after 7 years of staying away, to collect my ID documents and that was a very different experience. At the time there was an intense fear amongst young men that they would be randomly taken off the streets and forced into military service as conscription was often enforced in this way. Also people became immune to the news of death, fatality numbers broadcast on the news just became numbers. They had to adapt to carry on. There was this one time when I was in the market place and there was an explosion not far away. I ducked down and when I stood back up, everyone was functioning as normal, it was so strange. Growing up, I had an image drawn up in my mind of Syria when I was younger with all of the small things that made the memories stick as good ones. Things like memories of going to the news shop to get our favourite sweets and snacks. I miss those. I know that if I go back it would remove from those memories again, I know it just won’t be the same.
G: Tell me more about those values special to you that you mentioned.
M: Our values centre mainly around family, but we connect with each other is quite different, you can say hello to a stranger and it not feel strange to them. If you have nowhere to sleep, you knock on any door in Syria, and they will take you in. If you have no food, it’s the same thing. Generosity is what we’re known for, even if the person doesn’t have much to give, he will still try to be as generous as he can. Obviously not everyone is like this, but the vast majority are.
G: Wow that’s so different to people in the UK…
M: Yeah and the culture there is unique. Syrian television drama is quite strongly reflective of it and is also quite big in the Arab world but we carry these interests everywhere. Music is also really big there, if you speak of one of the greats of Arabic music you will probably end up referring to someone from the ‘big four’ or ‘classics’ (Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq), so it’s something we’re proud of and still holding onto. It’s more of a ‘you can take me out of Syria, but you can’t take Syria out of me’ kind of thing. There are regional differences across Syria. I have a friend from Aleppo who has quite a different accent and we laugh at each other’s accents when we say certain things. There’s a running joke that each region tries to show their best when they come together to prove they’re better than the other, but at the same time we’re one. When the war started it split a lot of people up, at first depending on what side you were on, people made choices not to speak to certain supporters. But later when things really fell out of control, people stopped caring. If one good thing has come out of the war it would be that people began to realise what we’ve been missing in Syria and this was unifying.
G: Your father was born in Syria and grew up there, did he share any of his feelings with you about watching the conflict from afar (his new home in Dubai)?
M: I think he feels deeply sad about the whole situation, his parents being based there too made things very challenging. He’d hear news of friends of his being killed by a bomb, barrel, sniper, completely innocent people being taken away. It was hard to see him so sad about the situation and I think we shared some of that sadness. He understands why its happening, how corruption has impacted the country and the people so much so that their daily lives became limited by the bribes they could offer. The political situation had been complicated for a long time. People decided not to stay quiet anymore. What was peaceful became violent as soon as people starting questioning things. Now you can’t really tell what’s going on, there’s fighting but the sides are unclear. There are so many different forces involved.
G: One of the things that really struck me about the film was how people were forced to cope without basic essentials, that people had to travel to Turkey, for example, for multivitamins for their malnourished children because imports are so limited to the conflict areas. As a result, like Khaled in the film, some decided to send their families away from Syria to relative safety, but stayed themselves to retain something of themselves in their home. They couldn’t imagine another home. What are your thoughts on seeking refuge in another country and what that means?
M: For some it’s a decision, for others, they lose everything they own and have nowhere to live and are forced to seek refuge. The strict entry into Syria means that business-wise and services-wise things aren’t great and that you have to source things yourself to survive. Many people feel they can’t look after their families properly and have to make difficult decisions in order to do what’s best for them.
G: What has been your experience of discussion of the Syrian conflict in the UK?
M: I understand why people wouldn’t talk about it because they don’t feel obliged to deal with it. The other side of the story is that, as human beings, this is something that we shouldn’t be quiet about, that someone should say something to show support, which happens but not as it should.
G: I personally feel it is difficult to feel empowered in aiding change because of the difficulty of how that happens. Giving money just doesn’t feel like enough or doesn’t feel like it would make any real difference as it’s hard to know exactly where that money is going to. There are also so many things that money can not fix, like losing a loved one, objects with memories attached to them being destroyed…
M: I think people don’t know how to help. I’m all the way here in the UK, they’re all the way over there in Syria, what exactly can I do? Pressure campaigns to push the government towards helping more would be great, it’s not really seen as a priority at the moment with everything that’s going on here politically. There’s also the issue of different news sources providing selective information or presenting information in a specific way and all of the viewpoints are contradictory, so a sense of what is really going on and how to help is hard to grasp. Some say it’s a Civil War, others say it’s not.
G: How does it feel to live in a place where your connections to Syria are, in certain situations, are a barrier?
M: I felt blessed coming to the UK. The change didn’t affect me at first but being Syrian I felt in the minority and I felt vulnerable. I don’t blame anyone for treating us differently in certain situations. For example it was difficult to get a bank account on arriving to the UK with a Syrian passport as a result of wealthy war criminals benefiting from the conflict and there being rules around that here. Also, my Syrian cousin was unable to see his wife when the U.S travel ban was imposed as she lived in the States. Although we were not directly in the firing line of the conflict, or living in Syria and fearing death, we were affected in so many other ways. I was upset by the UK’s decision to fire missiles in 2018. I do not feel like this is an effective way to help but I am also sad that other countries are fighting our war for us.
G: There’s so much I didn’t know about your story, so thank you! Thank you for thinking about these really challenging things with me, I hope that one day that we can talk about the conflict retrospectively after some sort of return to peace.
M: Me too.