The race to save Syria’s memories as uprising enters fifth year

Activists are working to archive huge amounts of material from the country's conflict – and the years before – for future generations to understand what happened, reports Josh Wood.
Demonstrators hold a large Syrian independence flag as they mark the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict on March 14 in Paris. AFP Photo
Demonstrators hold a large Syrian independence flag as they mark the fourth anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict on March 14 in Paris. AFP Photo

BEIRUT // As Syria’s uprising enters its fifth year on Sunday with more than 200,000 dead, millions displaced and no signs of a resolution despite international diplomatic and military intervention, activists are working to preserve records of the conflict in hopes they will help bring about reconciliation when peace finally returns.

What started as street protests against Bashar Al Assad’s regime in March 2011 has devolved into a complicated web of violence between government forces, numerous rebel groups including extremists, secessionist Kurds and a number of other actors.

Apart from the human toll, the war has devastated Syria’s ancient heritage, from the destruction of Aleppo’s old city to the looting of artefacts from the country’s many archaeological sites, but these activists are seeking to preserve a more recent history.

Sitting behind laptops in the West and sifting through jumbled boxes of yellowing documents in Damascus homes, these Syrians are collecting digital and physical records of the uprising and what led to it.

Zakera, which means memory in Arabic, is a project that seeks to save and organise the documentation of the war posted on social media. Since the first days of the uprising, the conflict has played out on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook as militias and citizen journalists brought the war to the world with their cell phones and laptops.

Their efforts have resulted in a dizzying amount of material online. But just because it is online and available to the public does not necessarily mean it is protected.

“Information from the last four years is slowly fading away because a lot of it is on YouTube and Facebook and is being deleted”, said Sabreen Shalabi, 23, a Syrian-American activist based between California and Turkey, who is working on the Zakera project, which plans to open an Istanbul office soon and is seeking funding.

Social media sites such as YouTube prohibit the posting of graphic violence and items that could incite violence or hate. This has resulted in many videos uploaded by groups fighting in Syria to be removed and puts many that have yet to be removed at risk. In other instances, pages are flagged as inappropriate by opponents lobbying for their removal. And occasionally people delete their old posts.

For Zakera, the solution lies in building its own database of such files on servers that are out of the reach of disapproving governments, armed groups and not subject to removal by social media sites.

But even when material does stay on social media, the sheer volume of the content makes it difficult to navigate or know where to start. Ms Shalabi says it is important to organise and curate material so it is more accessible to the general public.

“This history, if it’s not maintained or kept up now, so much of it will be lost by the time we do get around to it,” she said. “A lot of people think about it post-conflict.”

From Washington, Syrian activist and National Democratic Institute senior programme officer Amer Mahdi, 34, is collecting and organising the explosion of newspapers and online publications that appeared across the country after the uprising began and the government’s ability to control media collapsed. But many of these publications were short-lived and disappeared.

“Some of the newspapers stopped [publishing] and they took their websites down because they don’t have the capacity of publishing and distributing their newspaper,” said Mr Mahdi, who is working with a team from Enab Baladi, a Syrian opposition newspaper. “We have the capacity, and we can do it. So we started collecting the archives.”

Now the Syria Prints Archive project Mr Mahdi manages has collected 5,000 issues of 250 publications that emerged after the conflict began.

“I believe this is going to be part of the transitional justice process,” said Mr Mahdi. “Eventually, in my mind, this is going to be shown in a museum where we put all these publications for public access, for the Syrian generations to actually see what was happening.”

Other projects aim to delve further back into history than the conflict.

“The history of modern Syria and the history of even this revolution did not start neither with Bashar nor with [his father] Hafez,” said Lokman Slim, a Lebanese activist who heads the Beirut-based Umam Documentation and Research Centre, devoted much time to collecting documentation of Lebanon’s war and has now turned to Syria’s conflict.

“One of the first victims of the totalitarian regime of the Baath was the pre-Baath memory.”

Partnered with the Syria-focused pro-democracy NGO Etana, Mr Slim’s research centre is now working on preserving scraps of Syrian history.

Mr Slim is compiling the history of the conflict, but is also looking at what led up to it. For instance, the period after 2000, when Hafez Al Assad died and his son Bashar came into power. That year, saw the Damascus Spring, when Syrian intellectuals spoke more freely about the country’s situation and issued political and social demands to the government. The transition of power heralded a period of relative openness that the country had not seen for a long time.

Mr Slim says he is also trying to collect items related to the Syrian government, such as pro-regime newspapers and propaganda. “I think these are the most fragile things,” he said.

As for the war, Mr Slim says it has awakened local memories of past and present that will be difficult to suppress.

“At the end of the day or at the end of the war, these memories will be like a kind of genie, you cannot put them back in the bottle.”

Syrian historian Sami Moubayed is also collecting historical records that predate the conflict.

“Much of the history of Syria is not found in libraries, it’s not found in think tanks and research centres. We don’t have that,” he said.

Instead, Mr Moubayed says, much of Syria’s history is in the faded photographs and old correspondence found tucked away in homes in Damascus and Aleppo.

“Many of those [personal] archives have been abandoned, have been stolen, have been burnt or destroyed because of this four-year conflict,”

Mr Moubayed, who still spends a significant amount of time in Damascus, said he and colleagues go looking for the homes of families who are preparing to leave the country or who have already left, in hopes of finding these often forgotten records to preserve them in digital form. He hopes one day to display the documents collected in a museum.

The importance of preserving memory can be easily seen next door in Lebanon. The country’s civil war ended a quarter century ago, though many buildings remain scarred by bullet holes and shrapnel. But Lebanon has still never come to terms with the war that killed more than 150,000 of its citizens and pitted neighbours against one another for 15 years.

The war is not written about in history books that children read at school. What they learn instead comes from their parents and relatives. There is no museum dedicated to the conflict. There is no monument mourning the dead.

“We don’t really know what happened,” said Mona Hallak, an architect and a driving force behind what aims to be Lebanon’s first museum about the war, which will be founded in Beirut. “And [it’s] bizarre that 25 years after something so important happened you can’t say ‘this is what happened’ without somebody telling you ‘no, no, no, this is not what happened.’”

After the war, Lebanon’s warlords shed their camouflage and put on business suits, becoming the nation’s political elite. Militias became political parties, though many of those parties still maintain militias. The party flags that flew during the civil war are still flying over Beirut neighbourhoods today. In some neighbourhoods, men still stockpile assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, fearing a resumption of hostilities. For many it is like the war was paused, not ended, 25 years ago.

“Has the war really ended in Lebanon?” asked Mr Moubayed, the Syrian historian. “Have those who have committed crimes in Lebanon really been brought to justice?”

There remains a strong taboo about discussing the war in public, perpetuating the divisions in Lebanon. Mrs Hallak faces a difficult task in setting up a war museum. Because the events of the war are so divisive and remembered differently depending on allegiances in Lebanon, rather than looking at specific events and talking about the war in timelines like many museums might, Mrs Hallak said it was important to focus on the human experience of war that those who lived through it can relate to.

“Everybody hid in the bathrooms during the shelling,” she said.

One exhibit she’d like to see would be a recording studio where visitors could anonymously collect their memories of the war, or even just about Beirut. A similar project was done at Johannesburg’s apartheid museum as South Africa worked to confront its past.

In Syria’s case, Mrs Hallak hopes the era of social media will provide the documentation that was absent in Lebanon’s war and allow easier reconciliation down the line.

“We have a problem that the war [in Lebanon] is a blank page,” she said. “It shouldn’t be blank. But now you have all the social media, all the YouTube [videos] — I think that these kinds of things compensate for what we didn’t have.”

Published: March 14, 2015 04:00 AM


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