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A piano burns and a musician is silenced

Naomi Conrad September 15, 2015

During Syria’s war, a young musician played his piano in the Yarmouk refugee camp on the outskirts of Damascus. His aim, he said, was to plant the seeds of hope. But now he has fled Syria, Naomi Conrad reports.

Ayham Ahmad
Image: YouTube/Domenico Vescio

As the civil war raged on in Syria, a young Palestinian musician would wheel his piano onto the bombed-out streets of Yarmouk and sing amid the rubble and dust that have come to make up the Palestinian refugee camp outside of Damascus. As children crowded round, he would croon sad ballads or strike up rousing songs with residents.

"I wanted to plant the seeds of hope in those around me," Ayham Ahmad told DW. "I wanted to prove to my people and the whole world that the majority of Syrians don't want this war."

Shaky, grainy video footage uploaded by local residents shows Ahmad and varying groups of amateur musicians, many of them young children, singing and swaying to the tune of his piano. These concerts proved, the 27-year-old trained pianist said, that Syrians and Palestinians "love life," even in the face of great tragedy.

Situation in Yarmouk 'desperate'

As the bloody war drags on in Syria, life has become increasingly difficult and harsh. The Yarmouk camp, set up close to Damascus in the 1950s to house Palestinian refugees, became a symbol of the plight of ordinary people in 2013, when Syria's government laid a relentless deadly siege to it.

Boy sitting by fire in Yarmouk
Yarmouk camp has been besieged by varying factions since 2013Image: Rami al-Sayed for unrwa.org

Today, the situation remains "desperate" and conditions appalling, UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness spokesman said in mid-August. The UN agency works with Palestinian refugees.

In April, "Islamic State" (IS) fighters attacked the camp, but withdrew soon afterwards, leaving the al Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front as the biggest local nongovernmental force. Continued fighting in and around the camp and a recent outbreak of typhus have left several thousand residents, including children, without food, water and medical supplies.

In order to survive, Ahmad said, residents have resorted to killing cats and dogs to feed their children. "We hated it," he said. "We didn't want to kill them. But you know: Either a cat dies or your child. It's inhumane, but what can you do?"

IS fighter burnt his piano

Following IS's attack in April, Ahmad finally moved his wife and two young sons to relative safety outside of Yarmouk, but continued to commute to the camp every day to play piano and look after his shop, which sells musical instruments.

But, as the Nusra Front established its harsh regime in the camp, its Islamist fighters soon forbade Ahmad to play outside: "They told me that music was forbidden, haram." So, Ahmad moved his concerts to his music shop, even played on his balcony.

Finally, in mid-April, Ahmad said he decided to move his piano to safety, too. "You see, I love my piano, maybe almost as much as my children, and I wanted to make sure it was safe," he said.

That proved a mistake: As he was wheeling his piano out of the camp, he ran into a fighter for IS, which remained in the area after withdrawing from the camp. The man, Ahmad said, started shouting at him, also telling him that Islam forbade music. "I tried to argue with him and told him that music is not haram, that we spread hope and peace through music," Ahmad said. But the man told him to shut up, poured petrol on the piano and set it alight, leaving Ahmad to watch his beloved piano burn.

It was then that Ahmad realized that he could no longer stay in Syria, that he had to get his family to safety: "You know, despite everything, I am still a father, and need to protect my children."

General view of Yarmouk (Foto:EPA/YOUSSEF BADAWI)
Yarmouk, which once housed wealthy and poor Palestinians alike, has become a ghost townImage: picture-alliance/epa/Y. Badawi

He decided to head to Germany, which, he said, "takes very good care of Syrians, in a humane way." Ahmad, who started playing the piano when he was 6, is convinced that in Germany he will be free to play and teach music again.

Waging dangerous journey to reach Germany

In early August, Ahmad and his wife and children began an arduous journey through Syria. Fearful of endagering his parents, who are still in the Yarmouk camp, he doesn't want to say who facilitated his long trip. "It's a whole mafia structure", he said, adding that the family was passed on from one trafficker to the next, bribing their way through Syria.

When the family finally reached Homs, Ahmad said, he had to send his wife and children back to Damascus after realizing that he couldn't possibly afford to the necessary bribes to get his entire family to Europe: "I also thought it might be better if I go through with the dangerous journey alone and then I will send for them once I make it to Germany."

And so the young musician is waging the dangerous journey all by himself, without his family and his beloved instruments. He was heartbroken, he told DW from Izmir in Western Turkey, where he was sleeping on the streets. From there, he plans to make the dangerous crossing to Greece in the coming days. He was unable to take any of his instruments along with him.

"But my suitcase is full of memories," he said, "and my heart is full of stories from the camp."

Back in Yarmouk, the instruments he was forced to leave behind, are now silent.