A rupture amidst the ongoing war in Syria: Qosay Amameh recounts the deportation of the remaining members of the opposition from the Palestinian refugee camp Yarmouk in May 2018.
The clock shows five o’clock in the morning, and the sound of the minarets carries distinctly on the dawn air from central Damascus. All of the camp’s remaining residents are asleep, weakened by starvation. This is the 195th day of total siege: there is no food or drinkable water anywhere. A barrel bomb falls from a fighter jet into the heart of the camp, and the silence is broken.
A continuous shrill whistling sound, the ticking of a clock, dust, pain in his feet Muhammad is still alive, and reaching for space in which to move his body. He’s not doing this to work out if he has been directly hit, but rather to confirm the news to himself: I haven’t died yet. The large chunk of masonry that landed on his pelvis is hindering his movements, and in any case he hardly has the strength to do so. So he goes back to sleep.
Several hands are gripping him, pulling his emaciated body towards the light. He is being dragged along now. Everyone who lives nearby has congregated at the building the barrel bomb hit. Muhammad was in the kitchen of his apartment when he fell to the ground, while Wael was smoking a hookah pipe in the living room. The neighbors have carried Muhammad to the side of the road and dumped him there. There’s nothing to be done now but wait for the medics, who may arrive at any moment.
Muhammad has lived through the siege with Wael, in that apartment. Two young men who have not yet reached their thirties, who believe in many revolutionary ideas, hate weapons, love God and their sacred Prophets, love women, hate anything haram, and enjoy the noxious smoke emitted by the borrowed hookah pipe. They use all the money they have to obtain their own tobacco for the pipe, via the smuggling routes in and out of the camp. Everything valuable passes through those routes, at exorbitant prices. Only bread doesn’t manage to reach here and cannot be bought.
Breaking news appears in the regime media outlets an hour after the bombing: apparently, “The barrel bomb was not dropped deliberately, as after the helicopter was stricken by a technical fault, the honest pilot was obliged to offload the cargo however he could, for fear that the craft would otherwise crash.” The bulletin ended without any mention of casualties.
In contrast, news begins to spread from inside the camp to social media pages, under a headline that speaks volumes:
“A hateful criminal’s barrel of treachery falls on the camp”
The hungry people of southern Damascus and the Yarmouk camp were in the habit of festooning their news with freighted political phrases like these, descriptions that did nothing to mask their authors’ opinions. Like many other Syrians at this time, they still believed that death would make an impression on the outside world if news of it was delivered in snappy rhyming slogans. It would be many years yet before everyone writing the news realized that death here has no value anywhere else in the world.
Muhammad is risen from out of the ashes: a miracle! He is able to stand on his feet, even after his house and his body received a full barrel of TNT. The neighbors, paramedics, aid workers, and cameramen on the scene are dazzled. They chant Quranic ayahs and prayers, then recite slogans, and then forget the miracle.
Muhammad stands tall, sublimely upright, defeated, half-naked - and searching for Wael. But Wael is still under the rubble. The search for him will take longer than the search for Muhammad, who was close to the skylight window, making it easier to extract him. Wael was sitting in the living room when the barrel bomb fell, so three stories are now stacked right on top of him.
A few months before the barrel bomb, Wael was the voice of the south Damascus demonstrations, borne aloft on protestors’ shoulders as he chanted slogans and swore at the dictatorship, the dictator, the regime, the Arabs, the United Nations, the Security Council, the North Baltic states, the South Pacific states, America, Israel, the Arabian Gulf, and the rest of the globe. They would chant and chant and chant, then flee from the security forces and secret police. At night they scrawled phrases on the walls preaching dignity and freedom, and sometimes insults against the dictator, his mother, all his siblings and his other relatives, along with his father, his grandfather, and his entire family tree.
Fifteen hours have now passed since the barrel bomb hit, and it’s deemed there’s no longer any hope of Wael’s survival. The search operation is called off, his death is announced, the rescuers leave. Muhammad throws himself back onto the rubble where they have been digging their unfinished road to reach Wael - or his corpse - and gets to work. He’s a mole removing cement blocks, and earth, and fragments of furniture - or rather, he is forced to become a mole. He scours the depths of this difficult terrain for Wael’s body. He isn’t expecting to find him alive. He spends another ten hours emptying what he can of the gradually-lengthening hallway, on his way towards Wael, until he finds him.
He says: “He was curled up into himself like a fetus.”
They say: “He died alone and sad.”
He says: “He just died afraid.”
In the camp, all the bodies are buried in the remotest cemetery there is, out of the way of the snipers’ sights and the mortar shells and ground-to-ground missiles. But that cemetery is no longer big enough, so it has become common practice for a grave to be reopened in order for a new corpse to be stacked on top of the old. Wael is buried and Muhammad cries; Wael is buried and Muhammad leaves; Wael is buried and Muhammad prays.
The radio announcer, live on air, speaks with enthusiasm:
“All parties in Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp have reached an agreement that stipulates the transfer of militants and their families to Idlib in northern Syria, in addition to stipulating the conditions for those who wish to remain in the camp. In return, the Syrian Arab Army will now be in command of the entire camp, after many years of abuse by terrorist groups there.”
The parties reaching this agreement were ISIS, the Syrian regime forces, the remnants of Jabhat al-Nusra, and factions that no longer care what state the revolution and the people are in. The agreement was reached under the auspices of Russian officers. Everyone signed except the Palestinians. They know that the buses assigned for “all those who do not want to regularize their status” will transport them from south Damascus to northern Syria, free of charge and under the protection of Russian forces.
Half the women ululate and the other half weep, half the men swear and the other half smile, and all of the children play for the last time in the streets of south Damascus and what remains of the camp, reduced to rubble by the bomber jets. After a few hours the journeys will commence: whoever does not trust the killer must leave.
Muhammad’s decision is firm, and made in a lucid state - or at least that’s what he’s trying to convince himself of now: that the decision to leave south Damascus for the Idlib countryside was his personal choice, an expression of his will. He tells himself he’s not following an obligatory command that he has no control over, and not fleeing the certain death - under torture or by assassination - guaranteed to him if he stays. And that this is not even a defeat. Looking around him at the room in which he has been living, in a building that has danced with every shell that fell on the camp, he asks himself: What do I take with me from here? There are no pictures, no notebooks, no clothes, no remains of personal items, not even any doors on the room, no windows, nothing! What do I bring north with me?
In the square where they are to assemble, the fighters meet face-to-face for the first time, each carrying his weapon, and only a few steps away from the Other, the one who—until just a few weeks ago—has been trying to kill him. They are now in a truce imposed by the Russian soldiers, who organize the forced deportations with a skill born of experience.
The Syrians in that place are closer to Russian soldiers than they are to the other Syrians—those from the other side of the battle. One of the Russian soldiers is smiling, showing Muhammad to the right bus, helping the women carry luggage. He’s also responsible for the number of bullets each fighter is allowed to take to Idlib but is very lenient about keeping track, and leaves a lot of extra bullets with the fighters. He jokes with them in Arabic: “It’s all the same, it doesn’t matter.”
About seven of the Palestinian fighters at the assembly point settle on “Dimitri” as a name for the soldier, since it is the only Russian name they know. They don’t ask him his name, but they all agree to call him that. The Palestinians have this custom: they’ll give you a name and call you by it whether you like it or not. Usually it is more of a bad nickname than a proper name, but in Dimitri’s case it is just a name.
They ask him:
“Are you coming with us on the road, Dimitri?”
“Yes, I’ll be accompanying you in a military vehicle as far as Aleppo.”
“Excellent. Do you have any haram drinks with you, forbidden by God?”
“Vodka, whiskey, and beer.”
Muhammad says to the man sitting next to him on the bus: “The revolution is really happening in Idlib, where there is total freedom - not here, in the lap of the secret police. Up there we’ll complete what we started.”
Sounding tremulous, the man replies: “Are you living in 2011? What’s wrong with you? Calm down, we’ve been defeated. Can’t you see what’s going on?”
Muhammad doesn’t pursue the conversation. As far as he’s concerned he’s sitting next to a fleeing coward; he concentrates on looking out of the window.
Near that bus, a man and his wife have just gotten into a fight over an old heater the husband is refusing to bring with him from their house. The wife is calling him negligent and irresponsible, and he is calling her miserly and badly brought up, to which she responds with a counter accusation that he’s a pauper and always has been, so he takes his response to a new level, calling her stupid, and the other women are forced to break up the family quarrel before they get into throwing the furniture they carry at one another. The wife surrenders and gets on the bus.
The driver shouts: “Women at the back, men at the front, no mixing here. We’ve all got to put up with each other, it’s going to be a long journey.”
The chanting voices of the fighters grow louder. They are what’s left of the opposition, the ones who escaped death—not because some miracle occurred, but because the real battles stopped over a year and a half ago. After that, a section of these opposition fighters turned into local police in south Damascus, whose sole job was to annoy passersby. Their leadership had signed secret agreements through mediators, merchants, and influential people, with all and sundry in Damascus and in the camp, and so the battles no longer mattered.
They’re singing insulting songs about the dictator, whose soldiers are standing nearby. The songs make the soldiers angry, but they are unable to respond. It’s a contest over who has the least fear, and it’s won by these opposition faction fighters on the brink of departure. Their moment of glory comes when victory is sealed by the government forces’ fighters averting their eyes and staring off into the middle distance.
Around the buses that fill the street, there’s the distinct sound of the word “victory” erupting from many mouths: everyone here is talking about the major victory being marked today. The fighters forming the remnants of the opposition factions consider themselves to have won, as do the fighters from the dictator’s forces. The Iraqi and Lebanese fighters loyal to the dictator insist they are in fact the victors, while the ISIS fighters who infiltrated the civilians consider themselves to have won, by God’s holy command. As for the Palestinian fighters, they believe that they already won a very long time ago.
The doors are closed, and the buses set off for the north, escorted by Russian and Syrian regime military vehicles. They leave from the edge of the town of Yalda and pass right through the heart of Damascus, weaving through the main squares to reach the state highway. The view from inside the buses is awe-inspiring: Muhammad sees Damascus for the first time in seven years. This is Al-Fardous Street, that is Al-Basha Restaurant, this is Al-Salaam Roundabout… There is something strange about the sight of all this for those on the buses, since Damascus has not changed at all. It looks a little tired, but basically the same as ever. The people look the same as ever, the pedestrians busy with their errands just like they were seven years ago, shopping and laughing and having fun and getting fat, starvation and satiation separated by a single street. Just an ordinary asphalt road that men with full bellies have been traveling along all this time, while we were on the other end of it, just meters away, dying of starvation: what is wrong with them? Pictures of the dictator everywhere, phrases that glorify him displayed in shops and on building facades, cars adorned with his portrait, slogans about the dictator being above description, above criticism and above the homeland: what is wrong with Damascus?
The bus rolls slowly towards the state highway, as if it wants the displaced to bid Damascus farewell. Suddenly they are being pelted with tomatoes, eggs, and stones, by children, men, and women waving pictures of the dictator. Screaming and shouting fills the bus, the curtains are closed, but the vegetable bombing continues, the insults from outside being heard more and more clearly inside.
The bus has been parked for two hours now in the desert east of Aleppo. The point where it’s stopped is the dividing line between the Russian forces’ area of influence and that of the Turkish forces. More than twenty-four hours have passed since the buses set off from south Damascus. The man who clashed with his wife about their heater stands at the bus door and recites the divorce oath at her, so she ululates, then swears at him, and he reciprocates with something even more offensive.
This is a worrying and perplexing stop: the Turkish forces and the Syrian forces loyal to them are refusing to allow the bus to pass through their areas of influence on the way to Idlib, and the Russian forces and the Syrian forces loyal to them are refusing to allow the bus to go back into their areas of influence. The displaced, in turn, are divided between those who would prefer to return to Damascus, and those who would prefer to go on towards the northwest. “Dimitri” is confused about which position he should espouse. The Syrian government forces’ soldiers are getting bored, and their nerves are strained by the way the fighters from the remnants of the opposition factions are waving their weapons around, now that they’re further from Damascus.
Muhammad is growing more enthusiastic the closer he gets to Idlib, feeling the revolution drawing ever nearer. Meanwhile, the weird man sitting next to him is making fun of him. He advises him to take a closer look at the scene around him, and perhaps then he’ll take in the bitter reality? Muhammad rebuffs him, and vows not to talk to this defeated neighbor of his anymore. But soon enough he’s chatting to him again, too bored to hold back.
The activists in the buses have reached a “staggering breakthrough”: they have realized they must shame the civilized world and the international community into applying pressure so the buses are allowed to pass. They use their phones to record videos and write posts demanding they be transferred to Palestine instead of Idlib, because they are Palestinians—isn’t their own land the best place to receive them? They smile at one another, pleased with this clever idea of embarrassing the international community, which is supposedly quaking in intimidation at the horror of this new demand, and will immediately clear the buses’ path to Idlib. Then, when some of them remember that they have previously made this very same demand, during the lethal famine in the camp, they quickly turn their phones off, worried their batteries will run out. No one paid any attention to them and their demands last time.
Two new women join the cohort of divorcees on the bus in the desert, and quarrels between men and women escalate as hopelessness sets in. Men can no longer tolerate their wives, and women can no longer tolerate their husbands’ weakness. Some suggest setting up a camp in the desert; others reject this idea. Others suggest heading to the northeast, where the Kurdish forces are in control; the rest refuse. Some people go over to the idea of returning to south Damascus, and everyone goes crazy at the utter madness of that idea.
On the evening of the third day, “Dimitri” announces that an agreement has been reached: “You will head to Idlib, without passing through Aleppo.”
On the evening of the fourth day, the bus arrives at Deir Ballout camp in the Idlib countryside. It’s a new camp, and is aptly named, for here there are real tents, rather than the four- or five-story buildings of Yarmouk camp. Roads of sand and mud, Turkish and Syrian soldiers standing guard all over - everything about the camp is bad news.
The passengers disembark. The children immediately run off to discharge their pent-up energy from the journey, the women rush to the bathrooms, the men busy themselves investigating the place and inspecting the tents. The fighters seem more shy, for here there are other fighters from different factions. They might have been classified as enemies at some point, or perhaps fought against each other in south Damascus at some point, for reasons they can no longer fathom.
Those from the bus who are affiliated with ISIS leave the camp quickly, and those who have little money do the same. Then those who have relatives in nearby towns or cities, then those who are so disgusted by the camp they decide to throw themselves on any town and to any fate, then anyone who has been planning all along to cross overland into Turkish territory.
Muhammad stays. He settles in a tent, raises the revolution’s flag over it, and begins looking for a wife among the residents of the camp, who are Palestinians and Syrians. He subscribes to a ropey internet service, and sits waiting for aid from the Turkish humanitarian organizations that deliver water, food, and some medicines to Deir Ballout. On especially hot days he heads to the Afrin River to swim, or to seek the shade of some trees in the surrounding landscape. Soon he learns to smoke, and gives up praying. His battles are limited to improving the quality of the relief parcels that reach the camp’s residents; he shouts a lot in the demonstrations he organizes with the camp’s children when drinking water is cut off due to the shortcomings of humanitarian organizations, which he describes as “mercenaries of the people’s pain.”
People say that Muhammad is now married and has four children, and his allotted humanitarian aid allowance is greater than when he was single. Apparently he is flying the Turkish flag over his tent, and he still communicates with “Dimitri” every day via WhatsApp, to check that he’s doing alright.
Author: Qosay Amameh is a Palestinian-Syrian journalist currently living as a refugee in Istanbul. He works as a radio and television presenter. In 2020 he received a writing grant from Ettijahat Independent Culture to work on a novel project. He is a member of NIRIJ - Network of Iraqi Reporters of Investigative Journalism.
Translation from Arabic: Alice Guthrie is a freelance translator, writer, editor, and researcher. Her translations have appeared in a broad range of international venues and publications since 2008, recognized with various grants and honors—most recently the Jules Chametzky Translation Prize 2019. Among her ongoing projects is the translation of Moroccan feminist Malika Moustadraf’s complete works. As a commissioning editor she is currently compiling the first ever anthology of queer Arabic writing, set to appear in parallel Arabic and English editions in 2021.
Curation: Sandra Hetzl (* 1980 in Munich) translates literary texts from Arabic, among others by Rasha Abbas, Mohammad Al Attar, Kadhem Khanjar, Bushra al-Maktari, Aref Hamza, Aboud Saeed, Assaf Alassaf and Raif Badawi, and sometimes she writes too. She holds a Masters in Visual Culture Studies from the University of the Arts in Berlin, is the founder of the Literary Collective 10/11 for contemporary Arabic literature and the mini literature festival Downtown Spandau Medina
This essay is part of our series "Reminiscence of the future". To commemorate ten years of revolution in North Africa and West Asia, the authors share their hopes, dreams, questions and doubts. The essays indicate how important such personal engagement is in developing political alternatives and what has been achieved despite the violent setbacks.
In addition to the series we also address the ongoing struggle against authoritarian regimes, for human dignity and political reforms in various multimedia projects: For example, our digital scroll story "Giving up has no future" presents three activists from Egypt, Tunisia and Syria who show that the revolutions are going on