Palestinian refugee pianist given Beethoven Prize

Ayham Ahmad was awarded a prestigious international prize in Germany after fleeing the besieged Yarmouk camp in Syria.

Aeham Ahmad Yarmouk Piano
Ayham Ahmad eventually fled Yarmouk in September [Getty Images]

A Palestinian refugee, who gained international notoriety after a video of him playing a piano amid the destruction in a Damascus refugee camp went viral, has been given a prestigious human rights award in Germany. 

Ayham Ahmad, a 27-year-old from the Yarmouk refugee camp, was granted the International Beethoven Prize for Human Rights, Peace, Inclusion and the Fight Against Poverty on Friday night at a ceremony in Bonn, according to the German daily Deutsche Welle. 

Videos of Ahmad began to spread throughout social media in 2014, as the situation for the remaining Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk continued to deteriorate rapidly. 

 The Piano Man of Yarmouk, and what he left behind

The videos depicted him surrounded by collapsed homes and rubble-filled streets as he played on an old, decrepit piano. In some clips, residents of the embattled camp joined him and sang along. 

In September, Ahmad fled Yarmouk and took the perilous boat journey from Turkey to a Greek island. From there, he eventually made it to Germany. 

Just months earlier, in April, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) armed group invaded Yarmouk and took control of more than 90 percent of the camp.

Although they withdrew within a few days, fighters set Ahmad’s piano ablaze in the streets before departing. 

Speaking to Al Jazeera by Skype from the Greek island of Lesbos in late September, Ahmad said: “Leaving Yarmouk was a tragic experience.” 

“My house came under fire, so I had to flee with my family. The camp is no longer a place where we can play music. I am hoping I can get somewhere better where one day I can play music again.”

Al-Nusra Front still maintains a heavy presence in parts of the camp, while ISIL controls many of the surrounding areas. Since April, al-Nusra Front and ISIL fighters have assassinated dozens of Palestinian political leaders. 

“Even before Yarmouk was taken over by ISIL on the first of April, the UN secretary-general had described it as a refugee camp that had become a death camp, akin to the lower reaches of hell,” Chris Gunness, spokesman for the United Nations agency for Palestine refugees (UNRWA), told Al Jazeera. 

Explaining that UNRWA has been unable to access the camp since that time, Gunness said: “Our fear is that the beleaguered civilians who remain are suffering unimaginable indignities.” 

Taken on January 31, 2014, the picture depicts Yarmouk's residents waiting for food in a queue [File:UNRWA/AP, File]
Taken on January 31, 2014, the picture depicts Yarmouk’s residents waiting for food in a queue [File:UNRWA/AP, File]

‘Reduced to eating grass’

Like Syrians across the country, Palestinians in refugee camps, including Yarmouk, have been caught in the crossfire as fighting rages on between government forces and armed opposition groups. 

On Wednesday, residents marked the three-year anniversary of the government-imposed siege on Yarmouk. In 2012, the Syrian army set up checkpoints throughout the camp after bombing it and killing dozens of civilians.

In 2014, reports emerged of mass malnutrition and residents being forced to eat stray animals and grass in order to survive as Syrian soldiers heavily restricted the flow of food, water and medicine into the camp. 

Gunness described Yarmouk as “a place where women were dying in childbirth for lack of medicine and communities, including children, were reduced to eating grass”. 

“We call for immediate and sustained humanitarian access,” he said. “This appalling situation demands it more urgently than ever before.”

Although the UN dropped its classification of Yarmouk as “besieged” in July, residents reject the move, saying conditions in the camp have only worsened.

 Yarmouk residents struggle for survival

Once the home to nearly 200,000 people, a mere 5,000 to 8,000 people remain in the camp, according to the Jafra Foundation, a youth organisation that works in Yarmouk.

In August and September, the camp was gripped with a typhoid outbreak. 

At least 3,083 Palestinians have been killed since the uprising broke out, according to the UK-based Action Group for Palestinians of Syria. 

The Action Group estimates that 1,018 Palestinians are detained in the government’s prisons, while some 282 still cannot be accounted for. 

Although the conflict in Syria started as a peaceful uprising in March 2011, it evolved into an armed conflict that has killed an estimated 250,000 people, according to UN statistics. 

Additional reporting by Patrick Strickland: @P_Strickland_

Source: Al Jazeera