'Syria: A Conflict Explored' exhibition brings to light harsh realities of war

One of the key objects on display in the exhibition is a barrel bomb cut open that reveals shards of scrap metal packed around explosives

in Damascus, Syria, Saturday June 14, 2014. (Photo Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times)

Last week, The National called Eastern Ghouta a "living hell". We published pictures of children blown up by Syrian regime barrel bombs that had targeted hospitals, schools and homes. We noted that "in protracted and complex wars, there is a tendency to avert one's eyes, but we cannot let what is happening in Eastern Ghouta pass us by".

Unfortunately, the agony of Syria is too often ignored – by world leaders, governments and the media, right the way down to the man in a western street vaguely aware of some failed Middle Eastern state tearing itself to shreds. The bloodshed and massacres have continued for seven years now, and through ignorance, incomprehension or even war fatigue, we look the other way.

Except there's no averting your gaze from the barrel bomb sitting in the middle of an exhibition at Manchester's Imperial War Museum North. It's been cut open to reveal horrible shards of scrap metal packed around the explosives. For Christopher Philips, the co-curator of Syria: A Conflict Explored, it says everything about the nature of the war.

“It’s ugly. It’s brutal. It maims, cuts and harms civilians with the greatest possible level of violence,” he says, pointing at the outwardly inconspicuous oil drum.

“It’s not a military weapon – it’s not much use against a military target or a building. It’s deliberately designed to instil terror among people in opposition areas, to scare them, to break their will. That’s the nature of this conflict: it’s vicious. And perhaps,” he pauses, searching for meaning in such appalling times for Syria, “seeing this barrel bomb up close is more effective than statistics”.

"Syria: A Conflict Explored", an exhibition running at IWM North. 
A reconstruction of a 'Barrel Bomb' being installed in the exhibition.
Photographed 8th February 2018.

It might seem odd for the Imperial War Museum to be focusing on a conflict obviously in progress, but in its defence, it was set up during the First World War to "preserve and tell the stories of all kinds of people" involved in that conflict. So Syria: A Conflict Explored does feel timely, given it opens in the week the atrocities in the country are back on our front pages.

Comprising a display of objects exploring the narrative of the conflict, a wall offering the personal stories of Syrians themselves, a film (which quite brilliantly manages to explain the intricacies of the Syrian War in eight minutes), and finally the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Sergey Ponomarev, it’s a sobering but vital experience.

"Our visitors have actually told us they felt overwhelmed by what they saw on the news about Syria and embarrassed that they didn't know more," says Louise Skidman, head of contemporary conflict at the IWM. "They felt the situation in Syria was so complicated that they couldn't engage with it. So working with an expert like Chris [Philips], the intention was that anyone can come here and understand what is happening in Syria – and perhaps we can dispel any stereotypes that might exist by accurately reflecting a story with so many perspectives."

She points towards a strange commemorative plate in the exhibition depicting Syria's president, Bashar Al Assad, with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. It would be impossible, given the sheer weight of evidence, for the exhibition to be scrupulously fair, but Ms Skidman does admit they need to reflect that there are areas of the country in which Mr Al Assad does enjoy support.

On the story wall, for example, Ghaith from Latakia says that “soldiers die so we can live … if we owe them anything, then it is to live our lives”. And then just along from Ghaith is Farida from East Aleppo, points out Mr Philips. “For her as a doctor, the soldiers are the people who are targeting her hospital. Genuinely, we’re not here to say one person is right and one is wrong but they do reflect what Syria is like.”

A Syria where in one of Ponomarev’s most arresting images, a bright election campaign poster for Assad is draped over a completely bombed-out shopping mall. Or where a street sign in Jedida, Aleppo, can become emblematic of an entire conflict.

“It’s actually one of my favourite exhibits,” Mr Philips says. “I used to live in Aleppo, and Jedida was a nice neighbourhood; multicultural, quite upmarket actually. That’s why the stereotype of Syria being some kind of backwater is so wrong, but of course it comes from only seeing this devastating conflict for a very long period of time.

“So this street sign almost symbolises what has happened to Aleppo itself – there are bullet holes, shrapnel marks and that is exactly what this city and its people have suffered.”

The great success of this exhibition is that every element of it could in some way symbolise what has happened to the country, from the anti-government cartoons of Ali Ferzat (he had his fingers broken in the crackdown) to the heartbreaking stories of the families displaced and destroyed by a conflict they couldn’t escape. Everyone who sees it will surely never look at Syria the same way again.

But it’s also right to be realistic. How can an exhibition about Syria, in Manchester, really help a child living in fear of a barrel bomb in Eastern ­Ghouta?

Read more:

The attack on Ghouta is Russia’s attempt to avoid an 'October surprise'

Syria: a massacre unfolding in the shadow of UN resolutions

Demonstrators show support for Ghouta amidst feelings of hopelessness


“Well, if you look at the attitudes to refugees in the UK, they’re so negative,” Mr Philips says, carefully. “But there’s often very little attempt to understand where these people are coming from. I’m not trying to convert people overnight, but at least maybe this might make people engage with the awful lives that they’re fleeing and understand the complexities of the situation.

“Looking at Syria from any lens is miserable. For all the political problems in the past, it was relatively stable, prosperous and educated. It’s now been shattered and it doesn’t look like this conflict is going to end any time soon. But when you talk to people and listen to their stories they are, sometimes, of survival and success in spite of the conflict. So ideally, we’d like people to go away and maybe speak to some Syrians themselves. That would be, for me, fantastic,” he says.

Syria: A Conflict Explored runs until May 28 at the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester, England. See www.iwm.org.uk/events/syria-a-conflict-explored