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In Syria's starving Yarmuk camp, a pianist conjures hope

By Agence France-Presse in Beirut | China Daily | Updated: 2014-08-13 07:42

In the Yarmuk camp in southern Damascus, the notes escape a piano set in a scene of destruction, and the children in Ayham al-Ahmed's little group sing of hunger and suffering.

The music in the Syrian camp, under siege for a year and wracked by violence, seems at odd with the brutality that is all around.

It is almost reminiscent of the story of Wladyslaw Szpilman, a Polish pianist in World War II, immortalized in the film The Pianist directed by Roman Polanski.

In Syria's starving Yarmuk camp, a pianist conjures hope

Ayham al-Ahmed, a resident of Damascus' Yarmuk Palestinian refugee camp, plays the piano in the middle of the street near destroyed buildings. Rami Al-Sayed / AFP

"I loved that movie, which I saw in 2007, but I never thought that I would come to embody such a character," Ahmed told AFP, contacted by the Internet.

In photos posted on Facebook, the 26-year-old plays the piano in streets littered with debris, his face growing thinner with each passing month.

Once a thriving neighborhood home to 150,000 Palestinian refugees and Syrians, Yarmuk has been reduced to a shell of its former self in the conflict that began in March 2011.

Caught in fighting between rebels and the government, just 18,000 residents remain, suffering under a government siege that has caused the deaths of about 200 people in a year, 128 of them from hunger.

"I weighed 70 kilos before the siege. Today I weigh 45," said Ahmed.

Since the end of June, when a truce was reached between the government and rebels, with approval from Palestinian factions in the camp, the siege has been loosened slightly.

But the privations in the camp were so serious that Ahmed, who loves to play Haydn and eastern jazz, evacuated his wife and 2-year-old son, both suffering from severe anemia.

Under the circumstances, Ahmed's creation of the Youth Troupe of Yarmuk in 2013 was a rare ray of light.

"It was important to emerge from the despair we were living in," he said.

When he plays, he said, he feels that "there is once again something good in this life".

Ayham's father, 62-year-old Ahmed al-Ahmed, is a blind violinist who played with the troupe until rheumatism exacerbated by malnutrition forced him to quit.

An admirer of Bach, as well as the greats of Arabic music, Ahmed is proud of his son, who composes music for songs written by amateur poets in the camp and refugees abroad.

"Music is a universal language, a passport to reach that other," the elder Ahmed said.

"I want to put a smile on the faces of children," said Ayhem al-Ahmed, who named his children's choir Buds of Yarmuk.

One song about those in exile from the camp, called Brother, we miss you in Yarmuk, spread like wildfire on social networks.

It describes the story of Syrians who have been displaced from their homes or become refugees - about 9 million citizens in all.

"You have been gone for a long time. ... You who are in Beirut, in Turkey, we miss you," the children sing.

"When the children sing, I feel that there is hope again," said Ahmed, who dreams of one day playing in a professional orchestra.

In the deserted streets of the camp, opinion about Ahmed's project is sometimes divided.

"Some people say to me 'People are dying, and you're making music,'" Ahmed said.

But others, like resident Abu Hamza, said the troupe expresses the camp's suffering and helps lift spirits.

"When we hear them, we are able to forget our misfortune a little bit," he told AFP via the Internet.

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