Shadows of War

Silence between bombs in Syria photographs

Navigating the patchwork of controlled territories in Syria is a daily chore with life and death consequences. {{name}}
Navigating the patchwork of controlled territories in Syria is a daily chore with life and death consequences. {{name}}
01 October, 2013

IN RESPONSE TO 1967’S SIX DAY WAR between Israel and its neighbouring Arab states, the Syrian poet Adonis wrote: “A time between ashes and roses is coming/When everything will be extinguished/When everything shall begin.” War is terrifying, but also surreal for the people who must live through it; as Adonis seems to say, those caught in its midst are disorientingly poised between the ashes of utter destruction, and the everyday miracles of survival and hopes of renewal. Perhaps it seems so again now, in the full-fledged civil war occurring in Syria, 30 months after what began as an aggression in the south-western town of Dara’a.

Of the uprisings that have broken out across West Asia and North Africa, none have been as brutal as the one in Syria. It began in March 2011, when a group of children in Dara’a were arrested for their political graffiti, and protesters quickly came out to the streets in response. Security forces immediately cracked down on them, killing several people. Over the next month, inspired by the successful uprisings in other Arab countries, demonstrators demanded that President Bashar al-Assad stand down. The Assad regime then sent out a salvo of armed forces to crack down on protestors; by May 2011, these forces had killed almost 850 people. The country was soon plunged into a violent civil war between the government and Syrian rebels, rooted in political differences, sectarian bias and propped up on both sides by international interests. As of today, more than 100,000 people have died, and an estimated two million people have become refugees, fleeing Syria into Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

“Photographs of an atrocity,” the critic Susan Sontag wrote, “may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” The Syrian crisis is unfolding in a world where the photographic monitoring of war is immediate, with images from personal cameras and cellphones flooding the internet, along with self-published witness reports, which form a crucial part of the narratives of conflict.

When photographer Lucas Pernin travelled to Syria in early 2011, the rebellion and reprisals had already ravaged the lives of civilians across the country. Yet Pernin would find the rhythm of daily life, like a thready heartbeat, clearly discernible in the lulls between shelling wherever he travelled. Rents had to be paid; finding water to cook was, as in much of the world, a constant preoccupation, and standing in line for bread was a routine, if life-endangering endeavour, for most people. While the battered cities of Aleppo and Damascus were plunged into a state of constant anxiety, not knowing when or where the next shells would fall, there remained the enduring struggle for normalcy. People sang songs of freedom, and traded dark jokes to take the edge off the situation. “The uncertainty lurks in the silences between,” Pernin said of his experience. He recounted how locals went about their daily lives, finding grim comfort where they could. “If you heard the blast,” they often said, “it meant that you survived.”

Pernin was a witness to the Great Friday demonstrations in Damascus during April 2011 and watched how the regime bussed the shabiha, the thugs of the regime, around town to fight peaceful demonstrators. At the time, he was unable to capture a single frame out of fear of the security forces, who maintained a constant watch. Almost a year later, in December 2012, Pernin returned, hoping to document that atmosphere of intimidation, and found bullets and battalions, and a protest whose character had fundamentally altered. His photographs of the war acknowledge this changing reality through their depictions of ordinary people and moments: mothers, children, young people who had been forced to pick up weapons, all of whom had seen better times.