Photographs by Maryam Ashrafi, Nish Nalbandian, Yusuke Suzuki
Daily, Syria finds its place in the headlines: a higher death count, a new rebel group, the continual destruction of national treasures and the use of chemical weapons. A civil war is threatening to erase one of the world’s oldest civilizations. As informed citizens of the world, it’s our challenge and responsibility to find empathy and connection within the carnage. The featured photographers in this issue of ZEKE helps us do exactly that.
Editorial photographer Nish Nalbandian has documented the Syrian war since its beginning. As the conflict unwaveringly escalates, his photographs tell a story of the war on a human, rather than political level. Yusuke Suzuki, a freelancer based in New York, transports viewers to the war’s frontline with photographs offering a glimpse at the chaos and shortages of food and medicine in Aleppo witnessed through a humanizing lens. Maryam Ashrafi’s powerful photographs of Kurdish women fighters honor their courage while left to bury the fighters and pick up the pieces of the war-torn country.
The Syrian Civil War — a four-year conflict that has, to date, claimed over 200,000 lives and displaced over 11 million — was started by a couple of pranksters, kids aged 13 to 15 years old. In the southern city of Daraa they snuck out one cold night. “The people want to topple the regime,” they scrawled on the walls of their school. “No teaching, no school, until the end of Bashar’s rule,” another wrote.
Such antics were common in a country silenced for decades by threats of violence and ubiquitous surveillance. You couldn’t even buy spray paint without an ID in Daraa. And while most would consider the act itself nothing more than a case of teenage rebellion, with the backdrop of the Arab Spring, the Syrian state interpreted it as an anti-government demonstration and responded accordingly. The boys were arrested and tortured.
Parents inquired to authorities about their sons. “Forget your children,” one official reportedly said. “If you really want your children, you should make more children. If you don’t know how to make more children, we’ll show you how to do it,” CNN reported.
Outraged and offended, Daraa’s residents took to the streets. “What they did in Daraa was unheard of, protesting day after day. It sparked a revolution,” said Mohamed Masalmeh, a Syrian activist.
Their unprecedented displays of solidarity weren’t without a price. Security forces opened fire on demonstrators, killing several and igniting further furor. As outcries grew in strength, the regime’s response grew in brutality.
In July 2011, only a few months after the boys snuck out that cold night, hundred of thousands were protesting nationwide, calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad who has held his post since 2000, following his father’s 30-year rule. That same month the Free Syrian Army, formal fighting units begun by a handful of defected soldiers, was formed. Now, four years later, Syria burns.
What began as a rural and provincial-driven uprising, tapped into the deep-seated political and economic issues that have plagued the country for much of its history. The cradle of Middle East agriculture and cattle breeding, Syria was once the battleground for empires — the Hittites, Egyptians, Babylonians, and Phoenicians each had at one point called it theirs—before decades of colonization, political unrest, and brutal dictatorship. It wasn’t surprising that, following similar examples of revolution in the Arab Spring, Daraa’s cries of rebellion were soon echoed by the entire country and Syria descended into a merciless civil war.
At its inception, the conflict was between those for or against President Assad. The story today is much more complicated having evolved to include the interests of neighboring countries, the influence of world powers, and, perhaps most alarmingly, the rise of jihadist groups like The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
ISIL, an extremist group evolved out of al-Qaeda, has employed brutal tactics to command territories across Syria and neighboring Iraq. The group considers itself a “caliphate,” meaning it is governed in accordance with Islamic law, and has demanded the sworn allegiance of Muslims throughout the world.
Islamist and jihadist groups such as ISIL now outnumber secular forces in the conflict, their involvement turning the Syrian Civil War into a “war within a war.” Not only are rebel groups, deeply divided themselves by political allegiances, fighting President Assad’s government forces but they are fighting jihadist ones as well.
“You have so many conflicting interests and players struggling for dominance,” says Jean-Marie Guehenno, director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University and former United Nations Under Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, ”and the groups are becoming increasingly fragmented and radicalized...The great fear is of the conflict spilling over to other countries, starting regional wars and redrawing the map. It would be a catastrophic event with killing on an even bigger scale.”
It’s difficult to imagine violence of even greater proportions. The United Nations has repeatedly investigated alleged human rights violations concluding that war crimes — mass murders, torture, rape, public executions, and disappearances — are being conspicuously committed by all sides. No incident demonstrates the war’s savagery more clearly than that of August 2013 when rockets filled with sarin, a nerve agent and certified weapon of mass destruction, descended on several largely civilian districts around Damascus. The Western world, outraged, demanded the destruction of the country’s chemical munitions arsenal. It has since been dismantled but use of toxic chemicals, like chlorine and ammonia, has been documented since.
Such horrific conditions have unsurprisingly resulted in the largest refugee exodus since World War II. Over 11 million people, or half the country’s pre-war population, has been forced to leave their homes. An estimated 4 million have fled Syria entirely to neighboring countries like Turkey and Lebanon which, without adequate international support, struggle to provide refugees with even basic resources.
“I hate to make comparisons about who’s suffered more,” says Michel Gabaudan, president of Refugees International, “but the level of violence faced by Syrians has been surprising even to those used to working in these situations.”
According to a report by the United Nations, total economic loss to the region since the start of the conflict equals over $200 billion. Syria’s education, health, and welfare systems are now nonexistent. And an end to the fighting is nowhere in sight, threatening to destroy one the oldest civilizations on Earth.
“A whole generation of Syrians has been killed or robbed of productive futures,” says Andrew Gardner, Amnesty International’s researcher for Turkey. “Even if a settlement was reached, most refugees don’t show a willingness to return and it would take a tremendous amount of time for conditions of the settlement to translate into conditions for return.”
Yusuke Suzuki,a ZEKE featured photographer, quotes in his artist’s statement that the fighters say, “We only have time to think how we can win the battle.” But as the country they bleed and die for crumbles in eruptions of violence, do they ever think: will there be a future for Syria left to fight for?
For more information
Center for International Conflict Resolution:
Syrian American Medical Society:
Syrian Observatory for Human Rights:
World Health Organization: