Death of Syrian child actor sheds light on Aleppo’s brutal reality

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Qusai Abtini Qusai Abtini (Courtesy: AL-YOUM HALAB TV)

Qusai Abtini, the 14-year-old boy who played in the Syrian sitcom “Umm Abdou the Aleppan,” was killed trying to escape Aleppo last week when a missile struck his car.

His life and death underscored the suffering of Aleppans, whose city was once the commercial center of Syria with a thriving, unique culture but has now been torn to pieces by fighting, with whole neighborhoods left in ruin.

Using children to depict adult characters, “Umm Abdou the Aleppan” was a dark comedic look at reality in the war torn city, with its main characters confronting the daily challenges of a city that has been under siege for five years: electricity and water cut-offs; food shortages; divided families; switching allegiances; violence and death. 

Watch the first episode of “Umm Abdou the Aleppan” from 2014.

The show was shot inside of Aleppo, even as bombings were a daily occurrence.

“Umm Abdou the Aleppan” had become a curiosity of the 5-year-old war, the first sitcom produced out of rebel-held parts of Syria.

Abtini, and his other child co-stars, provided a tone of haunting innocence as they mimicked the brutal realities of the war around them.

Qusai Abtini

This undated frame grab from video provided by Bashar Sakka, producer of the sit-com, “Um Abdou the Aleppan,” shows Syrian actor Qusai Abtini, right, while filming an episode with Rasha, left, known as Umm Abdou, in Aleppo, Syria. (Bashar Sakka via AP)

The tragic reality intruded on that innocence this month.

In recent weeks, government forces have completely besieged the rebel-held sections, cutting off the last escape routes. Days after Abtini’s death, several dozen men marched through his home district in a symbolic funeral, waving opposition flags and chanting “Qusai has gone to heaven. Bashar is the killer of my people.”

“Umm Abdou the Aleppan” aired nearly 30 episodes, each about 10 minutes long, on the opposition station Halab Today TV. In one outtake, three girls performing a scene jump at the sound of an explosion, then go on with their lines.

Bashar Sakka, the director, said he cast kids because children are the witnesses to “the massacres committed by Assad against childhood.”

The show is steeped in the atmosphere of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, taking place in the stone alleyways of one of its old neighborhoods, with the dialogue in the city’s distinct accent of Arabic. The title character, Umm Abdou, was played by a young girl named Rasha, while Abtini played her husband, Abu Abdou.

Umm Abdo the Aleppo

Rasha and Qusai Abtini, the child stars of “Umm Abdo the Aleppo.” (Courtesy: AL-YOUM HALAB TV)

In one episode, the mother of a rebel fighter visits, looking to marry her son to Umm Abdou’s daughter. Over tea, Umm Abou tells her all her daughters are married to members of the Free Syrian Army, the comparatively secular rebel umbrella group. When she learns that the prospective groom is a “mujahid” — an Islamic militant fighter — she slyly demands a high dowry to intentionally foil the negotiations.

“Qusai was a very talented boy,” Sakka told The Associated Press. “We were looking for an intelligent boy,” he said from southern Turkey via Skype. “We wanted him to be free with ideas, and without fear of Bashar Assad’s regime and its ruthlessness.”

Abtini was 10 years old when mass protests first erupted against the rule of President Bashar Assad erupted in March 2011. He became quickly entangled in the uprising, taking part in anti-Assad demonstrations, often sitting on his older brother’s shoulders. He spoke in opposition videos, criticizing Assad’s government and describing Aleppo’s destruction.
At the same time, he acted in school plays. Afraa Hashem, his school’s director, saw his talent and introduced him to Sakka.

“He was very ambitious. Once he moved from acting in plays to TV, his dreams broadened and worked on transforming what he was living through” into his performances, she said, speaking from Aleppo via Skype.

Qusai Abtini

Qusai Abtini (Photo: AP)

During recent shelling, Abtini’s home was hit and his father was wounded, left bound to a wheelchair. On July 8, Abtini’s father decided to send his children out of Aleppo.

But as the car Abtini was in made a run down the one road out of rebel-held parts of Aleppo, a missile struck it. It was impossible to tell whether it was a targeted or random attack.

In a video of the symbolic funeral a few days later, his father in his wheelchair watches the marchers go by, holding a placard reading, “Qusai, Abu Abdu the Aleppan. You are a little hero. You scared the regime with your giant acts so they killed you.”

Story compiled with information from The Associated Press