Reel Life: Besieged in exile
'Little Palestine' documents, in harrowing detail, the daily life at Yarmouk refugee camp, where windows opened on the absence of food. Eventually all the refugees in Yarmouk were forced to move out
Revolutionaries are poets at heart. Abdallah Al-Khatib, the director of the documentary Little Palestine playing in the ACID (Association for Independent Cinema and its Distribution) parallel section at the Cannes Film Festival, appears to be one. His words, that run like a thread through his cinematic testament to the brutality heaped on Palestinian refugees in Syria during the regime of Bashar Al-Assad, are both heart-breaking and uplifting.
Al-Khatib was born in the Yarmouk district of Damascus in Syria—the largest Palestinian refugee camp in the world between 1957 and 2018. After the Civil War broke out in Syria in 2011, Assad set up a siege in Yarmouk, assuming it to be harbouring rebels. Not only did he cut it off from the rest of the word but also denied its residents the basic necessities—food, water, electricity and medicines. Little Palestine, a co-production of Lebanon, France and Qatar documents, in harrowing detail, the daily life of the residents under siege.
Al-Khatib’s commentary, replete in metaphors, imageries and allegories, lends an additional layer of poignancy to the already distressing scenes he captures on screen. He talks about how time had been stopped for them with the roadblock, how the horizon that was once teeming with endless possibilities was later looming with hopelessness. The blue skies had been reduced to dust. Or as he rounds it off: “time for peaceful bonfires was over”.
A singular aspect his camera brings out about Yarmouk is the walk. Scene upon scene shows its ravaged streets that are filled with people who are walking. Al-Khatib calls walking, an act of survival, a freedom ritual. Some walk aimlessly, others while praying.
Some march in protest to catch the attention of Red Cross and the UN, yet others do so in search of food and water, while sounds of bombings and gunfires provide the background score. It’s a place where people are casually aware and mindful, yet strangely oblivious of the mortality lurking all around them.
The camera makes us meet several of them. Each face has a story to tell. One talks about how they have to tear blankets to make bandages. There is no equipment in the Palestine Hospital to even stop people from bleeding. A group of young men gathered together for a wedding are told by an old man to hold steadfast and not fear death. “We still celebrate occasions,” he laughs.
Another set of youngsters can be seen transporting a rundown piano through the streets to later sing to its tune in chorus. A woman talks about how the delegation representing them is slow as a turtle, another recounts the early days of relocation to Syria when things were good. She is unwilling to leave Yarmouk, will continue to endure there till her death. “You will not exile us from our camp,” she says.
Then you have Umm Mahmoud, Al-Khatib’s own mother, a nurse who looks after the elderly only to find their lives slipping away eventually due to hunger. Among the “martyrs of hunger” is a little child called Israa. “I am from a country where windows open on the absence of food,” says Al-Khatib.
In the absence of any ration, people are forced to cook weed and cactus, queue up for a basic soup which they try to store in leaking plastic bags, hope for food parcels to be dropped on them instead of barrel bombs. And the shared wisdom is—“don’t trample on anything you might have to eat one day”.
Little Palestine is a devastating account of people humiliated, homeless and hungry beyond imagination. “Don’t forget anything”, they tell each other and carry on tenaciously: “We want to live. We were born to live”.
The most ironically riveting in their tragedies are the kids—drawing and writing about peace, playing games in which, they demand for the roads to be opened and siege lifted or airplanes be sent to transport them back to Palestine. In a particularly hard-hitting scene Al-Khatib asks them about what they dream of. One dreams of bread, another of roasted chicken. One wants his father back, other dreams of having his brother come alive again. Another just wants his childhood back.
All through this you still find them smiling. Not just them the whole community, while it faces violence, missiles, bombings, hunger and deprivation, still seems to find music, dance, love and joy in life. They will defy the landmines and bake bread. And hang on to hope and the faith in the larger power. The constant refrain is: God is with Us. God will judge. God will compensate us one day. Or as Al-Khatib puts it in his own poetic words: “Killing the flowers won’t delay the spring”; “Darkness of war shall leave, the candles of peace will be lit”.
Eventually all the refugees in Yarmouk were forced to move out and they are spread all over the world. Al-Khatib himself lives in Germany with his mother who still dreams of returning home. Not to Palestine but Yarmouk. It’s where her heart still lives, despite the hunger and the humiliation of the past.