Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 25th June 2017

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Syrian conflict in spotlight at London’s Imperial War Museum

Syria: A Conflict Explored reflects a multitude of perspectives and positions about the Syrian civil war.


Rare insight. Syrian refugees tell their story.

Rare insight. Syrian refugees tell their story. (Karen Dabrowska)

London - The Syria: A Conflict Explored exhibition is rightly an “exploration” by London’s Imperial War Museum (IWM) into the narratives of the sides competing to tell their version about the Syrian conflict, which has developed into an international proxy war.

Divided into three parts, the exhibition’s first section features a museum-like display of objects that tell the story of the tragic events in Syria. A child’s abandoned orange life jacket found on the Greek Island of Chios refers to the more than 4 million Syrians who have fled the fighting and are living as refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Europe.

Also displayed are souvenir mugs and plates with photos of Syrian President Bashar Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which are on sale in the port of Tartus, Russia’s Mediterranean naval base; cartoons from Syria’s most famous political cartoonist Ali Ferzat; a helmet worn by the White Helmets Organisation recognised for rescuing civilians in opposition-held areas; and a replica of a barrel bomb used by both sides in the conflict are among the offerings.

The second section consists of an installation film on two framed screens giving the visual effect of shattered glass. Produced by Liminal Films in collaboration with the IWM, the film tells the story of the conflict. It begins with a historical background to Syria and introduces the parties in the conflict. The film ends with a poignant quote from Lakhdar Brahimi, the veteran Algerian diplomat who was the UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria from 2012-14: “Everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all.”

The final section of the exhibition gives a voice to Syrians – the refugees, the civilians who stayed as well as the internally displaced. In captions under black-and-white photos they tell their story.

“The situation in Syria is complex, live and evolving and we know that viewpoints may change in two years, two months, two days or two hours,” said Gill Webber, executive director of Content and Programmes at the IWM. “We want to help our visitors cut through the complexity and enable a deeper understanding of the causes, course and consequences of what is happening in Syria today.

“A Conflict Explored reflects a multitude of perspectives and positions and also questions and challenges the information we have available right here and now.”

A Lens on Syria, another retrospective about the Syrian conflict, is displayed on the same floor of the IWM. It is the first British exhibition of 60 photographs of award-winning Russian documentary photographer Sergey Ponomarev. The Assad’s Syria series offers a rare insight into what life was like for people living in government-controlled areas in 2013-14.

Ponomarev was one of the few photographers allowed access to Syria. In a statement accompanying his photographs, he said: “For Assad’s Syria I was trying to document life inside one of the most tightly controlled states in the world. In this environment photographers and journalists were caught between what we saw and what the government wanted to show us. How do you distinguish between reality and propaganda? But it is vital to remain objective. Just because people are in government-controlled areas does not mean they are living well or safely or that they necessarily support the government.”

The Exodus series of photographs, which ends the exhibition, is a collection of images taken at the height of the European refugee and migrant crisis from June 2015-March 2016. The images capture the disillusionment and extinction of hope against a background of changing seasons, harsh weather, deprivation, violence and border closures.

The exhibition features many contrasting photographs: worshippers at the Shia mausoleum of Sitt Zeinab and Christians attending mass at the Greek Orthodox Church of the Holy Cross. A photo of Homs in March 2014 in which a family relaxes over drinks at a café in the government-controlled Gouta district, where living conditions form a stark contrast with those in the opposition-controlled sector of the city then under siege 3km away. In another photograph, children play in the ruins of Homs after opposition forces have left.

Syria: Conflict Explored and A Lens on Syria are on display at the Imperial War Museum in London through September 3.