The Syrian Civil War began on March 15, 2011, when government security forces clashed with protesters demanding democratic reforms, such as the release of political prisoners, increased freedoms and an end to corruption. An armed insurgency opposing the state security and calling for the resignation of President Bashar al-Assad grew from the protests. The violence ultimately turned millions of Syrians into refugees fleeing political violence.

As Dr. Nader Habibi noted last Thursday in a joint presentation called “The Visual Construction of Power in Syria” (sponsored by the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Program), the war “unfortunately is still underway.” Habibi, who is the Chair of IMES, opened the joint presentation by introducing the two speakers and summarizing their work. He added that audience members would have a chance to converse with the speakers in a Q&A session after their presentations.

Dr. Hassan Almohammed, the Madeleine Haas Russel visiting Professor of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Brandeis and a visiting Research Scholar at the Crown Center, spoke first. Previously conscripted into military service after war broke out in Syria, but later defecting in 2012 to become a French instructor, journalist and translator, he discussed how Syria’s infamous president, Bashar al-Assad, rose to power, and how visual media affected people’s perception of him.

Assad was elected in an uncontested election in 2000 following the death of his father and former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad. He entered office promising many of the reforms offered by other emerging leaders of the time. But while he claimed to crack down on corruption, modernize Syria’s infrastructure and make the country more democratic, his reaction to the wave of anti-government protests in 2011 permanently shaped his reputation on the world stage.

Assad took a hard-line approach toward the demonstrators, instructing law enforcement to arrest political dissidents, fire live ammunition into the crowds and label some of the protesters as “terrorists.” The result of the conflict was a civil war that displaced  5 million Syrians and led to one of the worst humanitarian crises in recent history. Almohammed noted that in a different world, Assad may have even offered concessions for fear of looking bad in the press. He noted how, in the years leading up to the conflict, Assad created a media environment that, in a nation he strove to make more secular, “had made him a bit of a God.” Almohammed sees the influx of Western reporters as a counterbalance to the propaganda that local news outlets were delivering, but he said, “We didn’t see what was happening soon enough.” Holding up a newspaper, Almohammed  said that protests toppling a gold statue of Assad’s father by protesters in Raqqa was a big turning point in how the press covered the conflict. “Visual images like this one made it hard for Assad to achieve his objective and clean up all the images of the war to make it seem like the conflict was not as bad as it was.”

Ultimately, Almohammed believes the “cult” surrounding Assad in the Syrian press has been reluctant to change its tune on the leader despite Assad’s declining popularity worldwide. 

Abeer Pamuk, a communications specialist from Syria who is now a Conflict Resolution and Coexistence student at Brandeis, spoke next, painting a picture of her life when the war began and how it inspired her work as a humanitarian. Pamuk grew up in Aleppo, Syria, eventually pursuing her dream to attend the University of Aleppo to study English Literature. Until her sophomore year of college, war was only a story she heard from her mother and grandparents. But beyond these stories, war seemed distant and theoretical — not part of her personal reality. When an extremist group took residence behind her house and began raping girls, her mother told her to pack everything and go live with her aunt in Lebanon until the violence ended.

Pamuk explained that the whole country entered into a phase of denial. They thought, “This is not happening. Syria’s not actually going to have war.” Pamuk only expected to stay with her aunt for three months. She was still living with her aunt six months later when she received a phone call telling her that two missiles had struck the University of Aleppo on Jan 15, 2013, the first day of midterms for students. “[A]s the person was talking to me, all I could hear   is, ‘Everyone you know is dead. Everyone you know is absolutely dead,’” she recounted.

“Desperate to do something for Syria as a young person” and understanding the nature of the conflict, Pamuk decided to return to her country. “I still remember looking at the road from two sniper bullet holes in the windows of the bus,” she recalled from the dangerous trip back, explaining how everyone –– including the driver –– must close the curtains and crouch when driving through certain areas to avoid gunfire.

Looking for volunteer positions that would give her the opportunity to talk with different people and insight into why people treat others differently, she found work with the SOS Children’s Villages. She initially claimed she was 23, doubting anyone would hire a 19-year-old, but the organization kept her after discovering the ruse because she “was doing the work.”

Most of her organization’s work has focused on children, with an emphasis on those who are orphaned or abandoned. Pamuk would talk to these children to learn about their lives and how the war has affected them, often traumatically.

Pamuk met a 9-year-old girl in Aleppo University Hospital who was injured the night before the Islamic festival of Eid. The girl was crying that day because her father had been kidnapped for the past six months, and she wanted accessories and a dress to celebrate Eid, so her mother took her out shopping. That’s when the rockets started falling. “Her mom was a thousand pieces in one second,” said Pamuk, explaining how the girl ended up in the hospital with major injuries to her liver and one of her lungs. “So, I was talking to her, and I helped her wash her face, and I said, ‘What do you want?’ I was like, ‘What would a child who’s put through this want in life?’ And she really, like, very innocently, said, ‘I want my father. I want my mother. And I want my Eid dress.’”

Pamuk lost touch with the girl for a while but tracked her down a year later to her “displacement home” and got permission from her uncle to do a photo shoot of her, which required a photographer, a hairdresser, a green space at the church in front of Pamuk’s house and flower crowns that her mother taught her how to make. She “wanted to test the ability of the Syrian community, if they come from different backgrounds, to come together for one thing,” to give the Syrian community an opportunity to present an image of a happy girl in a dress rather than a traumatized girl in a hospital. It was also an opportunity to give the girl a different “documentation of who she is. … She will never forget that she lost her mom on that day. But she also will remember the day I created.”

Pamuk said that a lot of people ask her what the difference is between the Syrian Civil War and other wars –– what makes it so horrible. “It’s because it happened in the digital age, and we have produced all this content about it,” she answered, going on to depict some of the most notable photos of children traumatized as a result of the war. Recognizing that children eventually grow up, she asked in reference to one iconic photo of a boy bloodied and covered in dust, “Is anybody making sure that this child has the support system to enable him to not get stuck in this moment?”

One silver lining Pamuk noted from such traumatizing images is how they can spur fundraising efforts and activism, but she qualified their impact, saying, “You have a donor fatigue after these photos have kept rolling on screens.” Ultimately, she expressed hope that victims could learn, as she has, to use education and activism to channel their traumatic memories in a positive way –– to give themselves something worth living for. 

She finished her talk with a photo of two boys walking together in a “very, very dangerous area in Damascus” surrounded by rubble, reflecting, “When we don’t have the buildings, we have the people, and I think this is where our work should be.”