'It's worth dying for': How the Syrian Banksy risks sniper fire to spread the message of hope

  • By ITV News Multimedia Producer Narbeh Minassian

A rebel street artist dubbed the Syrian Banksy is risking his life in Idlib to paint defiant messages of hope against the government onslaught.

Abu-Malek Al-Shami works under cover of darkness to create powerful images on bombed-out buildings - right in the path of President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies in north-east Syria.

Living under this kind of constant threat means Abu-Malek, who works under a pseudonym, relies on the glow of his mobile phone screen as his only source of light to avoid drawing a sniper’s attention.

“I always think this might be the last day for me, but it would be totally worth it to die for this - everyone in this revolution has a duty,” the 24-year-old told ITV News.

“I am careful and I try to pick locations at a safe time, but everyone has a duty. Like a doctor or an engineer, we all must do our bit.”

More than half a million people have been forced to flee - 80% of them women and children – as government forces continue to defy a ceasefire.

The UN recently warned the situation was reaching a "horrifying new level" as innocent refugees face daily, indiscriminate bombing.

Abu-Malek has already taken a bullet for the cause.

In 2013, he joined the Free Syrian Army in Darraya, near Damascus, when he was still a teenager, having previously used his artwork to support anti-government protests.

But in 2015, he was shot in the chest and he still isn’t sure where the bullet came from.

“It came from far away so it must have been a sniper,” he said.

He couldn’t get hospital treatment so spent seven months recovering at home, though he says he still hasn’t healed completely.

That’s the closest he himself has come to death, but his friends have not been so lucky.

Abu-Malek cannot safely work in the day anymore. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

“During my time in the army I didn’t kill anyone, I don’t know if I was just lucky or if it was destiny,” he said.

“I carried a gun only to defend my land. I was never in the situation to fight someone individually. But I saw a lot of my friends killed. Those were the hardest moments.”

He recalled one friend in particular, called Majd, to whom he became particularly close and had to bury in the ground with his own hands.

And yet of all his tribulations, it’s the past month that he described as the “hardest in my life” with widespread displacement affecting hundreds of thousands near the Turkish border, which remains closed.

“I move every two days from one friend’s house to another, which is very hard for me,” he told ITV News.

“I am trying to think if I should go to Turkey but smuggling is so expensive, it can cost $1,000 or $2,000 and I don’t know what I will do there.

“Everywhere in Idlib is closed so I can’t get a job.”

Some of the artworks painted by Abu-Malek Al-Shami. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

His life in Syria is bleaker than ever before and it has largely been a downward spiral since leaving his home in Damascus around seven years ago now.

He survived sieges in Darraya and came close to starving – “I suffered a lot,” he said.

Like many others, he is far from his family and only has limited communication with his mother and sister in Damascus.

Abu-Malek only gets in touch to let them know he is alive and to check on their welfare - too much detail may attract the government’s attention, he fears.

He paints on bombed buildings. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

So why does he paint?

“The main message depends on when and where I am drawing,” he explained.

“I want to remind people of the revolution, when it was peaceful in 2011. I wanted to do anything I could to support it and, yes, I carried a weapon.

“But I wanted to do more and do something that would last. This way I try to remind people of the peaceful principles of the revolution and to remind the world that people are suffering here every day.”

He left the Free Syrian Army in 2016 and has used his hands only for art since.

As a child, he said he enjoyed drawing so much that he would spend a few minutes on his maths homework and several hours on art assignments.

Abu-Malek loved art as a child and has carried on his passion. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

All his works were displayed on classroom walls and at exhibitions.

He was therefore naturally drawn to the suburb of Darraya, which became a symbol for peaceful revolution and, he said, attracted artists keen to create anti-government messages.

“I saw artists doing so much art there [Darraya] and it was to defy the government claim that they were terrorists [in Darraya],” he said.

That’s a picture Abu-Malek is determined to paint to this day, whatever the consequences.

But relying on supplies can be a frustrating wait, especially in his early days when he could only get his hands on primary colours.

Now he is ready to make his next artwork in the very near future, possibly this week.

One of Abu-Malek's more famous works. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

Abu-Malek told ITV News: “When I was in Darraya, I started to choose hidden places or to do my art and then take a photo and publish it, because I was scared of people’s reaction.

“But when I saw people get curious, I started doing them in more public places and I was encouraged by people to do more and the same thing happened in Idlib.

“It depends on the area, some people would care about art or would be scared it would draw more attention.

“I also saw many people support me. One person's house was bombed and he said you can come and paint on my house.”

Hope among the rubble. Credit: Ali Haj Suleiman

So what does he think of the comparison with Banksy?

“I see myself as an amateur and I’m still leaning. I want to do better and do everything I can to be a real artist like Banksy,” he said.

“I like the idea of the unknown and hiding his identity. I use a pseudonym as I am scared for my family. And this comparison draws attention to Syria.”

He points the finger squarely at Assad, who he said is “trying to kill revolution in every brutal way”.

As difficult as it is to look beyond the next day or two, Abu-Malek still has hope that he can one day resume his studies, get an “art certificate” and “carry the cause of revolution” everywhere he goes.

“I hope for a better Syria,” he said.

“After all, people here deserve to live in some peace for once.”