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.