To identify Abadallah Al Khatib’s chronicle of life (and death) in a besieged unofficial Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk deep in the centre of Damascus as poetic is not to ignore the human suffering seen.
Little Palestine (Diary of a Siege) is woven through with a voice-over taken from the director’s own «40 Rules of Siege» – such as «don’t follow time, find meaning in a child’s smile, sweeping up after a bomb, making a paper plane.»
The poetic asides provide pace and narration to a film that has a rough overall narrative structure (it traces the siege from 2013-2015, a time when food supplies become more and more scarce and many people die of hunger, not barrel bombs alone) but is essentially a series of images and events that could be from any siege, anywhere, at any time.
Al Khatib is a well-known character in the unofficial refugee camp, where the UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) does its best to keep people alive as a siege maintained by forces loyal to Syria’s warlord president Bashar al-Assad with Russian air force support does it best to kill them.
A lifetime against the odds
Quite why the refugee camp – established in the 1957 – should be a target for siege, other than the ubiquitous excuse that it is being infiltrated by Daesh (ISIS) rebels, is never explained. But then this is not a documentary about the Syrian war, but a portrait of some 160,000 poor people crammed into a couple of square kilometers of crumbling, war-torn concrete apartment blocks, trying to survive after a lifetime of trying survive against the odds.
The director’s mother Umm Mahmoud is a doctor who tends to elderly and often isolated people. One elderly woman talks about her life as a refugee since she fled Palestine as a 15 year old in 1948; she will not go anywhere, she insists. «You can only die once and there is nowhere else for me to go,» she states with emphatic fatalism.
«You can only die once and there is nowhere else for me to go»
There is a rhythm to the film that includes a degree of optimism – cheerful kids with big smiles talking about their dreams («I dream of a chicken sandwich, but also that my brother could come back to life,» as one says in a bitter-sweet moment) – but also progresses to images of small children grubbing in dusty yards for overlooked grains or the stoical little girl Tasnim who is searching for the small young, tender leaves of a herb that is otherwise poisonous. «This is all we have to eat; I dream of bread,» she remarks, absorbed in a task that only a shell crashing into a building in the next yard is enough to momentarily disturb.
«The siege is as long as a day in prison, like a railway station on a hot summer’s day; a path leading to madness or suicide. Under siege, time is the true prison of the besieged…» AL Khatib’s Rules of Siege intones.
Starving for sustenance
It is not all bleak. Where a little humour or entertainment can be found it is seized upon by those starving for sustenance, not only food: at a gathering of men before a wedding, an elder talks of God and the holy union of man and woman, before a sarcastic remark from the groom-to-be elicits a sharp «Fuck off, jerk» to much laughter and the lighting of another round of cigarettes (those ubiquitous survival crutches that no siege is able to keep out).
A stand-up piano is dragged into the street for in impromptu round of songs; large vats of water are boiled on open fires to provide some kind of weak broth handed out to the starving inhabitants. A UNRWA food parcel distribution brings happiness to some, misery to others that miss out.
Sometimes the patience of the imprisoned Palestinians snap and they march in a huge crowd to a checkpoint to demand their freedom; their only answer is live rounds that take a few lives and maim a few more.
Developed with the support of backers that include the Doha and Sundance Institutes and a Cannes workshop, the film has been long in the making and only now, nearly a decade after filming began, is it ready for release.
«The siege is as long as a day in prison, like a railway station on a hot summer’s day»
Times have moved on in Syria since then, with Daesh routed and the murderer-in-chief still in power, along with his British-born wife, still a British passport holder even though her support of terrorism is, arguably, far greater than that of radicalised British Bangladeshi teenager Shamima Begum, who lost her passport at the whim of a British Home Secretary.
Today, there are barely more than a dozen Palestinian families left in Yarmouk, and last year the online Middle East Monitor reported that «Yarmouk is moving from being a refugee camp to a Damascus neighbourhood» and, in a later story, reported that Palestinian refugees gradually returning, were being asked to provide proof of property ownership.