Stop the killing! We are people who love life!”—a message voiced by the Syrian people to the world in a 24-minute documentary, Memories of a Checkpoint, produced by Syrian filmmaker Tamer Al Awwam recently before his death.
Al Awwam, Syrian activist, filmmaker, journalist and writer, was killed in Aleppo on September 10 as he set off on a mission to convey to a disappointingly silent humanity what has become of his beloved, war-torn homeland. In a conversation with his first-cousin, Dr Najat Abdul Samad, she relates that Tamer, born in 1977 in the city of Sweida (a city in the southwest part of Syria), was the youngest of eight children.
Samad soulfully reflects on the memories of her childhood with Tamer and says, “What I remember most about Tamer is that he constantly complained about the way in which we live; in his mind he imagined a better life, and repeatedly declared, ‘We have to do something. Anything can help!’”
Samad then goes on to tell of her grieving aunt, Tamer’s mother, who desperately begged her youngest child, time and time again, “My son, your generation doesn’t know the meaning of war! Beware of those who do not fear God!”
“But nonetheless, Tamer remained steadfast and committed to his cause. He asked his mother to bless, understand, and forgive him, and continued with his mission,” Samad said.
Tamer began his travels along the Turkey-Syria border at the start of the revolution and offered his time and efforts to help Syrian refugees. But that was not enough for him. Soon after, he decided to embark on a self-appointed mission, into the battlefield, aiming to report to the world the human pain and heart-wrenching reality that was taking place on the streets and in the neighbourhoods of his country.
“He returned to Syria a few days before his death... to his beloved land on whose soil he met his demise. He returned a beautiful bird... a drink of water for a thirsty soil,” said Samad.
Tamer lived and studied in Germany for a number of years before his final return to Syria. One of his friends, Bader Alabed, a Syrian dental PhD student attending a German university, describes Tamer as a “one-of-a-kind, revolutionary spirit”. He explains, “Tamer was so liberal in his thoughts and actions that even some of the most liberal communists were unable to understand his way of thinking. Tamer had no limits, no boundaries whatsoever!”
Bader also recalls a time when he asked his friend Tamer about how things were going with him in Syria, to which Tamer replied “I am very sad.”
Before his death, Tamer walked the streets of war-torn Idlib in northern Syria and captured what he saw in his documentary Memories of a Checkpoint. In the film, Tamer scurries through the debris of rubble-filled streets and takes us directly into the battle scene, into the line of fire, transmitting the thunderous sound of the battles and the chillingly piercing noises of flying bullets and missiles. He stops at one point to ask two children peeking from behind an open door how they are able to sleep. “We are not sleeping,” they reply.
He visits the site of a deserted school whose yards are covered in broken pieces of school desks, torn coloured-alphabet pages, and shredded report cards. He conveys to his viewers how a school that was once built to graduate Syria’s “future teachers” had been transformed into a military base with holes in the walls for sniper rifles “to shoot at children”.
Most poignantly, he brings out the heartbreaking voices of the inconsolable, bereaved mothers. Tamer’s camera lenses capture that heart-rending agony that only dwells in the eyes of a mother who has buried four children all at once, and in another’s crying, “Two [sons] are imprisoned and one is under the soil.”
An elderly man with white hair and unshaven white stubble on his tired face, suddenly appears on the camera and frantically shouts, “Just Look! Where in the world did this happen? Where? We are not sleeping; we are not sleeping—where else is this happening?” He continues to yell, “We are people, we are people‑children! They are killing children. Isn’t this sin? It’s Ramadan. We are fasting. We are fasting. My God! We are fasting. From morning [they are shelling] from 3am. We are not eating before sunrise; we are not eating dinner... All day there is shelling from planes and from cannons.”
He carries on to curse the president without any reservation or fear, while a group of school-less children display peace signs and cheer in support of the Free Syrian Army.
Shortly after the production of his work, Tamer was killed by a bomb, and his dream of seeing change and attaining freedom for his homeland remains a project in the works.
The sad reality is that the brutality of the Syrian civil war will continue for as long as there are groups from both the army and opposition forces killing one another mercilessly and incessantly, where one is destroying in the name of a country, and the other in the name of God!
Ghada Al Atrash holds a Master’s degree in English and teaches at a college in Abu Dhabi.