Everybody's target

He is repeatedly attacked by both sides in the Syrian conflict, but Abdullah Al Khateeb sees no reason to quit. The Palestinian-Syrian activist talks to Erin Kilbride.

© Front Line Defenders

Abdullah Al Khateeb can’t believe journalists never ask him about his love life. By the time I interview him at noon on a Monday, he has already spoken to six newspapers that week about his human rights work in Syria’s Yarmouk Refugee Camp. He says that in all his conversations about the war, Palestinian rights, death threats and his ongoing activism, not once did anyone ask if he has a girlfriend.

‘It’s question, answer, question, answer. No-one seems concerned with whether I have somebody to love,’ he says at the end of our conversation.

It’s easy to see why journalists might forget to ask about his personal life, given the drama of his surroundings. In 2014 and 2015, when Yarmouk was besieged, Palestinian human rights defender Abdullah became one of the main sources of information for the media, rights groups and aid workers desperate for news of the camp’s 150,000 starving residents.

For many years before that, though – before the Syrian civil war began, ISIS showed up, and the world took an interest in Yarmouk – Abdullah had been well known across the camp as one of many young activists committed to keeping his Palestinian community alive in Syria.

Now 27, he pinpoints joining the Palestinian Youth Football club, aged nine, as the starting point of his activism. When your people are persecuted just for existing, he says, anything that fosters community is an act of resistance.

He went on to found a number of youth-development organizations, coach local football teams, join international aid convoys distributing food in his neighbourhood, and write human rights reports when international observers were locked out.

An early supporter of the revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Abdullah’s activism has nearly cost him his life more than once. He has been targeted repeatedly by both government and non-state armed groups, including the Al-Nusra Front and ISIS.

In mosques across Damascus, members of ISIS have waged a campaign against him, accusing Abdullah of blasphemy and leading ‘secular, godless projects’. In April 2015, when Yarmouk was almost entirely controlled by ISIS, militia raided his home. Abdullah managed to escape capture – it was the second failed kidnapping in less than two months.

Abdullah puts the difference in life expectancy at about 50 years between an activist and someone who tries to live a quiet life

In July 2016, he survived an assassination attempt. ISIS later claimed responsibility for the attack, which left him in a critical condition after being shot in the chest. He has been in hiding ever since.

His problems are not confined to ISIS. Less than a month after being shot, Abdullah received a notice to report to the local Syrian Islamic Commission in Yalda, a rebel-held city west of the camp, where authorities had taken offence for ‘teaching swimming to girls’ on a Yarmouk children’s programme.

Violent and oppressive groups are trying to stamp out human rights defenders such as Abdullah in Yarmouk and across the country, for their peaceful work to protect and feed communities – and hold killers accountable.

When Yarmouk camp was under siege and its people starving, Abdullah organized community-farming projects to produce more food; when militant groups recruited child soldiers, he connected their families with psycho-social support; when rights organizations were unable to enter Yarmouk to document ISIS brutality, Abdullah stayed behind to send photos, audio clips and reports to international journalists.

When asked how he came by the skills he has deployed during nearly 20 years of activism in Yarmouk, Abdullah says simply, ‘We’re Palestinian. We are very, very good at surviving.’

Most of Yarmouk’s tens of thousands of residents are descended from Palestinians forced from their homes in the 1948 war over Israel’s founding. Since the start of the Syrian civil war, Yarmouk has been hit by a series of bombardments, sieges and chemical attacks that forced these second- and third-generation Palestinian refugees to flee once again.

Today, in makeshift refugee camps scattered across Europe, you can usually spot the Palestinians even before you hear their accents. They are the ones setting up phone-charging stations in camps in Greece, sending their nephews round to collect a little fee.

They also make phenomenal activists.

‘When you care about people,’ Abdullah says, ‘your responsibility is total. If there is no-one to clean the roads, you clean the roads. If there is no-one to put the fire out after the bomb drops, you put out the fire. If there is no-one to write about the danger people are living in, you have to learn to write a report. This is our responsibility. It’s a revolutionary responsibility, a religious responsibility, a national responsibility.’

Abdullah can think of plenty of things he would rather do than be an activist. He loves to teach, and says he’s at his best when he’s coaching in Yarmouk’s youth football league.

Aid work is seldom fun, and rarely glamorous, he says. Food distribution is heavy, cold work, especially in Syrian winters. And you tend to attract anger when you’re the one deciding which family gets rice.

Abdullah says that in Syria – and in many war zones, he suspects – the distinction between activism and humanitarian aid work has melted away. ‘It’s hard,’ he says. ‘You can’t say, “no, I won’t do it because that’s humanitarian not human rights work”. You have to be prepared to do everything and if you’re not, you shouldn’t be an activist.’

If the government, or an armed group, wants civilians to starve, the humanitarian who feeds them quickly becomes the most famous activist in the camp. When ISIS occupied Yarmouk in 2015, it took less than a year for the group to call openly for Abdullah’s assassination. He believes this had as much to do with his work on community food programmes as it did with his liaising with foreign media.

Abdullah is keen to stress that he is one of many, many others. For six years, Syrian activists have provided the most insightful, critical accounts of the war and human rights violations happening in the country – often at great personal risk. They have been detained, tortured, disappeared and killed for their work. In communities under siege and in countries at war, these human rights defenders play an even more critical, life-saving role.

As government troops closed in on the last rebel-held areas of Aleppo in late 2016, human rights defenders still inside split their time between digging children out of the rubble, co-ordinating medical care and recording voice-messages for journalists about the ongoing bombardment.

They, like Abdullah, were activists, aid workers, war correspondents and community volunteers all rolled into one. They bore witness to the violations being perpetrated in Aleppo, as the sole source of credible information for the United Nations, foreign aid organizations, international rights groups, and the media.

They continued to report despite competing, life-threatening demands on their time, and mounting evidence that every interview put them at greater risk of capture.

Abdullah puts the difference in life expectancy at about 50 years between a high-profile, at-risk activist and someone who tries to live as quietly as possible.

He acknowledges that the various groups trying to kill him might succeed, but he doesn’t see this as a logical or compelling reason to quit.

‘Whether today, or in 100 years, everyone on the planet is going to be dead anyway. So all we can do is try to make it good for other people while we’re here.’

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Erin Kilbride works at Front Line Defenders, frontlinedefenders.org