For the past year, Abu Malek a-Shami was the resident artist of the blockaded, bombed-out south Damascus town of Darayya, where the fallen buildings became canvasses for his murals.
Some of his paintings made sharp political statements; others were messages of hope amid the rubble.
Though not born in Darayya, the 22-year-old street artist moved there three years ago to fight with the Free Syrian Army. The town, one of the first to join the Syrian revolution, was under regime siege since 2012.
Last month, regime and opposition forces in Darayya reached a truce, effectively ending the town’s armed resistance against the government blockade. As part of the deal, a-Shami was forced to leave with the rest of the civilians and fighters remaining in Darayya.
The artist headed north to rebel-controlled Idlib alongside other fighters and their families while some civilians went to regime-held Outer Damascus. A-Shami couldn’t take much with him.
He left all his murals behind.
“I feel like someone close to me has been killed,” he tells Syria Direct’s Ghardinia Ashour. “The war, the siege and hunger were one thing – but leaving Darayya was something completely different.”
Before Darayya’s evacuation, Shami spoke with Syria Direct about his street art. Now, he describes the artwork and the city that he left behind, and his journey north to Idlib.
Q: You’re still in Idlib, right? Have you settled down? How do you feel?
Yes, I’m in green and liberated Idlib. I haven’t completely settled down for two reasons.
First, I’m shocked by life here. I’m still not used to the routine of daily life – in Darayya, we forgot what that was four years ago.
Also, there is overcrowding in secure areas that are far from the fighting. People don’t know what will happen if brigades decide to restructure or join with other factions, or if institutional change occurs.
I’m quietly trying to understand the situation and gather my thoughts.
Q: How were you received in Idlib? Did people know you who you were?
They shot celebratory gunfire while we passed in front of their homes. We didn’t tell them this, but the amount of ammunition they fired was enough to liberate Darayya, Ghouta and all of Damascus.
This realization was painful.
But the joy and love people showed us was indescribable. I felt like we were long-lost brothers or lovers reuniting.
As for my work, few people know I’m an artist.
Some residents who knew me from before directly contacted me. And some people asked me to paint on their walls.
I’m excited to work with them.
Q: How does it feel to leave behind your murals?
I feel like someone close to me has been killed.
At the same time, I feel that my murals are a challenge to the Assad regime, and I am determined to continue in spite of everything.
Q: Which of the murals that you left behind is most important to you?
The one that tells my own story, the story of me and my best friend.
He was more than a brother to me. In the painting, two friends grow up together, go to school together, then join the revolution together. One of the friends is killed in battle, and buried in the cemetery.
The sketch for a-Shami’s favorite mural – “the one that tells my own story.” Photo courtesy of Malek a-Shami.
This mural had a huge influence on me. It is the story of all those killed in Darayya because they all have friends that they left behind, friends who they grew up with. So it tells my story and the story of everyone in Darayya.
Q: You usually paint murals, which you couldn’t take with you to Idlib. Tell us about the one canvas painting you were able to bring with you.
This is the first painting I ever did on canvas. I painted with oil colors.
It was the first of several paintings I wanted to display at an exhibition in Darayya.
I finished this painting during the ceasefire that began in February. I planned to make more paintings, but then the regime ended the ceasefire and resumed dropping barrel bombs, so I couldn’t keep going.
“The Path Towards the Sun of Freedom.” Photo courtesy of Malek a-Shami.
I put my entire soul into this painting. Each time I painted I felt different emotions—hope, victory, sadness, strength, and perseverance.
I recently agreed with my friend Basheer Jamal a-Deen, one of Darayya’s heroes who is also a poet, to write a poem that relates to the painting.
We’ll spread our ideas using the power of poetry and paint.
I still haven’t thought of a name, but I’m leaning towards something like “The Path Towards the Sun of Freedom.”
Q: Tell me what it was like when you left Darayya.
It was the most difficult thing we went through in four years. The war, siege and hunger were one thing – but leaving Darayya was something completely different. It was a shock for us.
In the days before we left, nobody could sleep. We packed all our most important things first. Because I’m a fighter, I packed my rucksack and rifle.
We weren’t allowed to take everything with us. People burnt the things they left behind so the regime couldn’t take their possessions. Everyone burnt their photos, books and memories.
The regime forces ordered us to hurry, so many people didn’t have time to burn all of the things that they left behind.
The hardest farewell was at the cemetery. We used to talk to the people buried there and hope that we could lay down next to them someday.
They evacuated us on buses. On the first day, there were 12 buses – 5 of them were for civilians, headed to al-Kiswah [a Damascus suburb]. Most of the civilians were women, old men and children.
The other 7 buses were headed to Idlib. Those were for the fighters’ families. They left on Friday and ended up at Qalaat al-Madiq, in Hama’s countryside, on Saturday evening.
I left in the second round.
As soon as we left Darayya, we held a rally in the bus. We cheered: ‘This is Darayya!’ We meant this literally; the Darayya we left isn’t just a city or buildings. In Darayya the revolution lives inside of us, in the hearts of young people, men and children.
The trip was very long, and we didn’t get any breaks. At 5:30am, we arrived at Qalaat al-Madiq in Hama’s countryside, where a crowd of people was cheering for us. This was the last regime army position.
Q: Did you ever get the idea to fight back against the regime security forces that were guarding the buses?
I put a paintbrush in the opening of my gun so that I could show the world that our goal wasn’t to kill, despite the fact that the regime forces are our enemies. We carry weapons for the sake of defending our freedom and dignity.
Q: Did you talk with the other passengers on the bus ride to Idlib?
I videotaped and interviewed the people on the bus. One of the passengers I spoke to was an old man with gray hair and wrinkles.
I asked him how many times he had left Darayya and he told me: ‘I’m 71 years old and this is the first time I’ve left. And I didn’t leave until we were forced to [during the evacuation].’
‘We are carrying Darayya’s name with us, until we return.’
Reporting by: Madeline Edwards