ISIS tried to silence him, but pianist won't stay quiet

ISIS destroyed his piano, but he plays on
ISIS destroyed his piano, but he plays on

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    ISIS destroyed his piano, but he plays on

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ISIS destroyed his piano, but he plays on 01:25

Story highlights

  • Musician who played to fight oppression left his Syria home after his piano was torched
  • Aeham Ahmed feared he was broken, too, but a gift and the songs of children have given him new hope

(CNN)"Shut up or I will throw you on top and burn you along with it!" barks a jihadi in black.

Aeham Ahmed is scared but unyielding. "What is wrong with having a piano?" he said.
The two stand for a moment, their eyes locked. A musician and his instrument. An ISIS terrorist and his AK.
    Then the jihadi begins to pour lighter fluid on the wooden frame. "You know it is a sin."
    Ahmed tries to plead, muttering something about song and hope.
    In an instant, the upright piano is ablaze. Dozens of people stand nearby, helpless and afraid.
    Ahmed's toddler son begins to cry as his mother pulls him away from the fire.
    The scene is jolting, even for Syria.
    And it was a breaking point for Ahmed, who'd taken to the streets with fellow musicians to stand up to those who would squash the human spirit.
    Ahmed was born and raised in the Yarmouk camp, an impoverished suburb of Damascus that was established in 1957 to house tens of thousands of Palestinians displaced by the Arab-Israeli conflict.
    But then came the Syrian civil war and the "kneel or starve" campaign by the forces of President Bashar al-Assad. Troops encircled Yarmouk, blocking delivery of food, water and medical supplies to make sure residents were submissive, Amnesty International reported. Planes bombarded the area as snipers shot at anything that moved, even mothers trying to forage for food for their hungry children, according to Amnesty at the time.
    That was when Ahmed and his friends formed a band called the "Youth of Yarmouk" and began playing a dingy piano and singing in the streets. They vowed never to pick up arms at a time when it seemed as if every able-bodied male had joined this or that militia.
    In a clip filmed on a bombed-out residential street in January last year, the men sang:
    The camp for years surrounded by tanks.
    But the people never surrender even if the whole world forgets it.
    Without you who am I?

    If I lose Palestine then my nation becomes Yarmouk.
    The group would roll the piano around on a rusty green dolly, a stark difference from the Kalashnikov-toting militiamen roaming the alleyways. Wherever the band stopped, families looking for relief from the endless fighting would join them, children would sing along and their parents would nod to the music.
    "Reality cannot be changed by a piano," Ahmed, now 27, says about his concerts in the ruins. "But I felt the reality changed inside of me and inside my children when I played. The situation was terrible, and we needed a little hope and a little love."
    They posted videos on YouTube, were interviewed by international media and Ahmed and his friends gained some fame. They became popular among their neighbors in Yarmouk too, where Ahmed's father, also a trained musician, had owned a music shop before the start of the conflict in 2011.
    In one street performance recorded in May 2014, Ahmed is smiling broadly. His baby son is sitting on the piano clapping his chubby little hands. A local flute player and a rapper are guest-starring with the group. Only a handful of people are in attendance but the band appear to have transcended onto their own stage, somewhere else, somewhere at peace.
    At the moment there seemed to be a glimmer of hope. Maybe things would get better.
    They didn't. Things got worse.
    When ISIS entered Yarmouk in April, the fighters brought with them their version of Islam, issuing bans on music and women wearing jeans, and inflicting severe punishments like lashings, even beheadings, on transgressors.
    Yarmouk was a symbolic prize for ISIS, allowing them to claim they were the champions of the Palestinian cause in Syria.
    But that didn't mean there would be more relaxed treatment of its residents.
    Ahmed and his piano were seen as a threat, a direct affront to ISIS's death philosophy demanding its followers forgo their present humanity for the rapture of an afterlife.
    And so, his piano was torched.
    Ahmed stared at his burning instrument for about 10 minutes, feeling as if his heart was burning along with it. He thought about his nation, Syria, and the nation of his grandfather, Palestine. He looked at the fighter in black and wondered if they had won -- if those ghouls were indeed their own nation, the Islamic State, and if he was doomed to live there.
    Then he gathered his wife and his young son and daughter and walked them to the checkpoint out of Yarmouk.
    The family had already decided to leave, taking their most precious belongings with them. Strangers and neighbors tried to comfort the four as they trudged through the rubble that lies everywhere in Yarmouk. "It's OK, Ahmed," they said. "At least you have your family, at least you have your health. It's OK."
    For Ahmed, it wasn't that simple. "The piano was my friend," he says. "It is as if they killed my friend."
    Ahmed and his family now live in the town of Yalda, just west of Yarmouk, in an area still controlled by government forces -- though ISIS remains close.
    Once again, the flow of goods and people is strictly controlled and life is hard, marked by shortages of everything.
    For the first month in Yalda, music was also in short supply. Ahmed refused to play, saying "they" had "destroyed everything I had."
    But he has been playing the piano since he was 5, and the old passion pushed its way through.
    A friend gave him an electronic keyboard worth about $200 and he started giving lessons to local children. "The children of Yarmouk are the reason I started playing again," Ahmed says, "Seeing how much they enjoyed singing and learning music encouraged me once more."
    Aeham Ahmed plays his new keyboard
    There is only about an hour of electricity a day, but Ahmed has found a way to hook a bike up to a converter to generate power. He says he spends up to four hours a day pedaling to make electricity to charge his phone and Internet router and to play.
    Ahmed no longer plays with his old Youth of Yarmouk friends and only occasionally posts videos, now playing on isolated rooftops or crouched inside to avoid attention from ISIS and its supporters.
    "In the end, I love music and the piano, and I want to spread hope through songs," Ahmed says, "I am not a big thing or a small thing. All I want is to spread hope regardless of the life situation."