The piano of Yarmouk

The piano of Yarmouk
In the devastating siege of Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria, Aeham Ahmed struggles to continue to provide relief to the camp's residents through music, writes Imogen Lambert.
6 min read
05 June, 2015
Aeham Ahmed and singers in Yarmouk with the piano, now destroyed [Anadolu]
"We sing for Palestine, and we sing to keep us outside political conflict...we want to sing about love and peace, the end of misery, and about families returning to their homes,"  relays Aeham Ahmed to al-Araby al-Jadeed.  

The pianist comes from Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus, which has been under siege for almost three years, when the Syrian civil war moved to the camp.  

A lack of food and water, and bombs from both opposition groups and the Assad regime has turned Yarmouk camp into an unimaginable hell for its residents.

     I decided to start making music and to sing about the misery of the camp
- Aeham Ahmed, resident of Yarmouk camp
In deserted streets, among bombed and bullet-ridden houses, Aeham Ahmed wheeled around his piano accompanied by singers, who sang about the siege of Yarmouk.

They performed for the camp's beleaguered residents, as well as broadcasting their performances to the outside world on Skype.

After Islamic militants burnt his piano in April, Aeham and other Yarmouk residents have been denied even this small escape from the awful realities of the conflict.

Aeham is currently confined to playing a keyboard in people's houses.

Before the conflict, Aeham was a music student; like most inhabitants of now war-torn Syria, he was leading a very different life.

"I studied at the university of music in Homs and was a student under great piano professors like Vladimir Tarkesvky, learning classical music and piano techniques".  Aeham said.

However, the Syrian conflict soon moved to Yarmouk and cut his studies short.

"I decided to start making music and to sing about the misery of the camp; having no water, exile and emigration and electricity cuts... the program started in Monsura school, which had already been bombed," Aeham recalls.

Aeham performed with other musical residents from Yarmouk their first song called "emigrants come back".

"The song talks about families that have left the camp, and are scattered around the world. It asks them to come back to the camp and rebuild it," Aeham said.    

Emigrants come back, the travel has been long
Yarmouk, we are his soldiers,
And that will never change


Yarmouk camp has seen massive emigration since 2012. Before the Syrian conflict there were around 800,000 Palestinians residing in the camp, but this reduced to just 18,000 at the beginning of this year.

Ahmed says there are only a few thousand residents left in the camp, including himself.

"The people responded to the music that spoke about them and their problems, and spoke in their musical tongue...this has nothing to do with politics," Aeham said, discussing the reception his music has received in the camp.

The Palestinians of Yarmouk tried to stay neutral when civil war broke out in Syria. However, the fighting soon moved into the camp with some Palestinians joining opposition forces, and other conscripted into the Syrian-controlled Palestinian Liberation Army to fight with the Assad regime.

Accusing the camp of harbouring militants, the Syrian regime has cut off water and food supplies. Two-hundred residents have since died of starvation.

International aid groups complained that they are unable to access the camp to provide supplies, while residents say that the world is ignoring their plight, and not doing enough to help.

Before the siege, Yarmouk camp had a tradition of a rich cultural and musical life, influenced both by Palestinian heritage and the neighbouring Damascus. Aeham's father is also a musician and an oud-maker.

"As a Palestinian in the camp we have loved weddings and parties for a long time, and there were a lot of musical bands. There was always a connection between singing and the camp, even before the siege," Aeham says.

"When the piano went out to the streets of Yarmouk, the people, the whole world and the camp were shocked by the instrument, not by the music," he continues.

The visual juxtaposition of a piano and the back drop of a war zone in Syria is certainly jarring, with the instrument emphasizing the ruins that surround it.

"The people know that the piano is difficult to move, and you can only usually see it in salons and theatres. They wonder: 'How can the piano move, with Aeham playing melodies and memories, on the cart that you sell vegetables on?'" he said.

"The music and singing does not give me a financial income,

     My instrument was burned by an individual act from a radical armed militant
Aeham Ahmed, pianist from Yarmouk camp

 but it has a moral role - it keeps life moving forward, above the troubles surrounding us," Aeham explained. 

However, the musicians have faced numerous problems.

"There are a lot of obstacles, from moving the piano to militant groups, to the world not helping to support our music, and the world not caring about the situation of the camp - the children and families."

Just as the situation in Yarmouk seemed terrible enough, the last few months saw an increasingly troubled time for residents and the musicians.

As the Islamic State group moved further into Yarmouk, militants, reportedly from the group, set fire to Aeham's piano, as certain interpretations of Islam consider music to be religiously prohibited.

"My instrument was burned by an individual act from a radical armed militant, but I am ok,"  Aeham said. "Now I have a keyboard to play with the children in the house after they stopped me playing music in Yarmouk camp."

IS has largely retreated from the camp. "All the people and families from Yilda and Babibla areas moved to safer areas away from the bombing,"  he said.

Tragically, a girl who sang in one of his groups was reportedly killed during this period, possibly by a sniper. This makes her one of the 166 children estimated to have been killed during the siege.

Children have been especially victimised in the camp. The UN has reported that 16 per cent of the children in Yarmouk are acutely malnourished.

"I play the music for the children of the camp and to spread love and peace for their innocent souls,"  Aeham said.

"Aya and Marah are two girls who are learning singing with me through a program that aims to help childrens' psychological situation through music," he said referring to the video of the song "Yarmouk misses you, oh brother".

Let's all come back to the house and remember when we were young
Play on the roof and hide behind the walls
Yarmouk’s eyes are crying, and it asks why did my people leave me?
Those staying in Qudsaya,
Yarmouk misses you, oh brother

Aeham teaches music and organises activities for the children in the camp with the help of his wife.

"But the situation in the camp is deteriorating due to the bombing and armed conflict," he said.

Aeham has not had a chance to escape, but given the chance, he said he would leave the desperate conditions in the camp.

"My wife, our children Ahmed and Kenan, and myself are stuck under the siege. I want to emigrate from Yarmouk so I can offer my children a better future.

"I want to leave Syria to a place that respects humanity," Aeham said.

"Despite a siege that has lasted for three years, and the development of these inhumane and dramatic events...I love music."