For Sama – the film that shows what it’s like to grow up in a warzone

Waad al-Kateab's remarkable film records what it was like to not only live through the siege of Aleppo but to give birth and raise a baby. The filmmaker explains how children comprehend the incomprehensible

As kids we’re warned about the creatures under the bed or the bogeyman who’s going to get us for an unspecified reason. For some children, the monsters are real.

Naya, three or four years old, shelters in a dark, crowded basement in Aleppo during an air bombardment. The sounds of explosions echo around the room.

“Did you hear the missile?” she is asked. “Yeah, one here. Another there,” she points, then stretches out her arms: “It has teeth this big!”

“You can’t understand what they imagine in their heads,” says filmmaker Waad al-Kateab. The 26-year-old journalist lived through the 2016 siege in Aleppo. Dispatches she sent to Channel 4 won her an Emmy and now more than 300 hours of footage she recorded has been edited with fellow director Edward Watts to create For Sama.

Where al-Kateab’s film differs from other war documentaries is that during the siege she became a mother. Bombing, violence and massacres contrast with the hope that new life brings, underlining the fragility of it all. The film is half apology, half explanation for Sama about why the family stayed in Aleppo.

“Sama was too young,” says al-Kateab, now based in London. “When she grows up, how will we start to introduce these things to her?”

The film focuses on children and the experience of childhood in the most difficult circumstances. A burned-out bus becomes a playground and bedtime stories teach lessons of survival.

“There is a boy and a monster or the big bad wolf,” al-Kateab says. “Even if you are trying to tell the story with no details of horror you need to explain what happens so if it happens to them they can understand what to do. Something like this: if an aircraft comes, what should you do?”

Another child doesn’t think of being in the middle of a global-political conflict, the tragedy in his eyes is that all his friends have deserted him.

“He was saying there is no life outside of Aleppo and even if there is shelling there he wants to stay in his home,” al-Kateab says. “Even if his family fled he wants to stay. It’s something very strange and shocking. Why is he thinking like this? I really don’t have any answers for that.

“Now [his family] live in Turkey and the situation is much better than before, but they have some racism in the school. One of them was crying: ‘We want to go back to Aleppo, we don’t want to live here’.”

Al-Kateab stayed in Syria to be with her husband Hamza. He established a hospital in the shell of an unfinished building in east Aleppo. Because it was not identified on any maps, it escaped government bombing while all other hospitals in the area were targeted.

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Sama with her father Hamza and colleagues at the hospital

Filming became a coping mechanism for al-Kateab. A reason to stay alive. A way to keep others alive. 

After friends and colleagues Gaith and Omar were killed, footage of them at work and play became their memorial. CCTV footage from the hospital shows Dr Mohammad Wassim Maaz walking down a corridor and out of shot moments before an explosion rocks the building and he is killed. He had been the last paediatrician left in Aleppo, the man who delivered Sama. 

One day a woman who is nine months pregnant is brought to the hospital after being caught in shelling. Her baby is delivered by emergency caesarean: unresponsive. Medics attempt determinedly, relentlessly, to revive the boy. It is one of the most soul-shaking scenes ever captured on film.

Eventually the family were given an ultimatum, to get out or almost certainly be killed. They spent a year in Turkey, where Sama’s sister Taima was born. Al-Kateab says she can see important differences in the girls.

“They are very different, how they deal with things, how they speak, how they process everything. After we left, Sama had some difficult times. She was waking up at night screaming. Not crying, just screaming.

“But Sama is a very practical girl. A simple example, if she wants to eat she doesn’t come to me and say, ‘Mummy, I want to eat’. I have seen her drag a chair to the kitchen, climb on up to the fridge and take her food alone. That’s something really positive in her character but at the same time I’m very aware about when she will start to process what she went through.”

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For Sama is a window straight into the horrors and humanity in Syria. But al-Kateab emphasises that her story is not unique or historical. It is the reality for people today.

“This is not just Aleppo, this is Ghouta, Homs and every city against the regime. The same situation and experience is happening now with three million people who live in Idlib. That is the last area out of the regime control and all the people who fled from Aleppo and many other places are really trapped.”

At least 25 hospitals were targeted by airstrikes in a single month earlier this year. Al-Kateab hopes the film will help draw international attention to the crisis.

“Nothing gives you the right to bomb a whole city with hundreds of thousands of civilians there,” she says. “It is important for history, for our children to see what really happened.”

For Sama is out now in cinemas