To start off the Human Rights Film Series, the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center held a screening and discussion Tuesday of the award-winning documentary “For Sama.”
Dr. Glenn Mitoma, the director of the Dodd Center spoke before the film started and not only thanked the sponsors of the “For Sama” event, but also acknowledged the land UConn was built on once belonged to the Mohegan, Mashantucket, Pequot, Eastern Pequot, Schaghticoke, Golden Hill Paugussett, Nipmuc and Lenape peoples. “For Sama” was created by Syrian mother, activist and journalist Waad al-Kateab for her baby daughter Sama, both to document the war crimes the Syrian government committed on the city of Aleppo and to explain why she and her husband Hamza decided to stay in the warzone with their baby.
The documentary began with students at the University of Aleppo spray painting the walls of their university in rebellion of their dictator president. As the rebellion grew and peaceful protests became more frequent, the Syrian government began to violently attack the people of Aleppo. Planes and helicopters dropped cluster bombs and toxic gas onto the city. During the conflict, over 30,000 people died, and many of the dead and dying came into Hamza’s hospital where he and 32 doctors stayed behind to aid the rebellion. Waad filmed dozens of the dead and dying in the hospital, many of which were children and pregnant women. Some of these children had their parents and siblings sobbing at their sides; others had no one left to grieve them.
In the midst of these attacks, Hamza and Waad fell in love, got married and gave birth to Sama. They had to play the music loud at their wedding to block out the bombings. Once it became unsafe to continue living in their home together, they had to switch to the slightly more defensible hospital. Sama grew up within the thick hospital walls and sandbagged windows. Everyday she was whisked away by her mother or other hospital residents to the basement while bombs rained down around them.
Waad interviewed and recorded several children and families who chose to remain in Aleppo. The children knew the names of types of bombs that blew up their homes. Many kids mourned their friends who died and were angry at friends who fled with their families for leaving them behind. Parents told their children stories about entire families who died because of the bombings as tales of caution. At the age of one, Sama no longer cried when she heard the bombs.
In the end, Waad, Hamza and Sama, along with the remaining survivors in Aleppo, were forcibly put into exile. Despite the shambles their city had fallen into and all those they had lost, the refugees cried as they left their homes for the last time.
Students came to this event for a number of reasons.
“I'm taking a poli sci W-course and instead of our class today our professor had us come to this movie, but it was by choice if you wanted to come,” third-semester political science major Alec Becker said.
“My Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) professor said that we have to come to an outside event and this seemed like a great opportunity,” first-semester psychology major Olivia Sarasin said.
When both students were asked about what they knew about the current crisis in Syria, only Becker said he came in with prior knowledge.
“I believe it’s [the crisis in Syria] still going on,” Becker said. “Not as major as it was before. I believe it’s dying down.”
After the film, a discussion was held by Sana Mustafa, a Syrian refugee, and Kathryn Libal, the director of the Human Rights Institute at UConn. Libal said she was researching refugee resettlement for years, but this was the first documentary she saw on those who stayed behind in the warzone. By staying in Aleppo and recording the war crimes around her, Waad helped to shape efforts toward creating accountability for the thousands who died.
As a Syrian woman and refugee herself, Mustafa was able to explain how risky it was for Waad to have stayed in Aleppo during the attacks. Mustafa was 19 and living in Damascus when the Arab Spring began, and said that going to protests was always dangerous. Protesters could be kidnapped, tortured or killed. Her own father was kidnapped and remains missing to this day. Despite this, people like Waad continued protesting so they could finally get the chance to say “all we want is freedom.”
Mustafa explained that the conflict is largely misunderstood. It is not a civil war because “there are no more Syrians left to participate to fight.” Rather, it is a world war that dislocated and murdered thousands.
“[‘For Sama’ was] extremely moving, powerful, and I am going to be thinking about this for a long time,” first-semester economics major George Rycdhwalski said.
Rycdhwalski went to “For Sama” because he is taking Internal Relations and his professor Jeremy Pressman recommended the film to him. He also lived in Abu Dhabi for three years and claims to be aware of the conflict in Syria.
The next Human Rights film screening will take place on Tuesday Sept. 17 between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. in Konover. The film screening will be “Threads,” a documentary about an India artist named Surayia Rahman who teaches impoverished mothers in Bangladesh how to embroider.