The scene is one as old as the long history of the Middle East. A child mixes straw and dung to light a fire, some of the straw on his knee. His face is obscured by a beanie so that this child – not an infant but still young – could be any child.
Behind the child is a wall. Such structures are common throughout the Middle East, but it seems symbolic. The dribbles of concrete from its construction make the wall, in rural Homs, seem to weep, for this child and for Syria.
Once a relatively prosperous country, five grinding years of conflict, kept simmering by the intervention of foreign powers, has reduced many parts of Syria to relying on the simple strategies that have served for millennia.
Any progress has been wound back to the essentials of life: keep warm, survive the constant air-raids, find food to support the family. This is life in Syria today as Bashar al-Assad clings to power, supported by the vested interests of Russia and Iran.
The photograph (shown above) is the work of Mohamad Abo Khaled.
I interviewed Mohamad with the translation help of a Syrian-Australian artist friend. The interview had to cross language barriers and the gulf of understanding that exists between Australia, a country settled by migrants, and Syria.
Syria has been pulled apart by the forces of imperialist meddling. The savage repression of the democratic urges of the country by the governing regime has created a stalemate where the suffering of the people is drawn out.
My initial connection with Mohamad was through social media. The Arab Spring has been called the “Twitter Revolution”. It shows the radical potential of social media to spread protest despite state repression. Unsurprisingly, it is also now a target for government crackdowns and a vehicle for the diffusion of propaganda by all sides in this brutal conflict.
Asked about the aims of Syria’s uprising at the start of the Arab Spring in 2011, Mohamad talked of his hope for a “free and dignified life and to bring down the tyrannical regime”. He said the struggle is “still faithful to the principles of the revolution to this day”.
Asked about those heady days before civil disobedience transformed into armed conflict, Mohamad remains idealistic. Homs is described – on Wikipedia at least - as “the capital of the revolution”. Speaking of those chaotic early days, he said “revolution did not need a constitution or to organise a democratic revolution because it came out of the womb of the oppressed people”.
They “sentenced despotism” and “went out to get their freedom and their democracy ... to demand a civil state and get the most basic right, a right to life”. This basic demand remains five long years later.
Mohamad lives in the “rugged” geographical area north of Homs which, together with Idlib province near Aleppo, remain the last major rebel hold-outs against the regime and its allies.
The Syrian conflict confounds Westerners. There is a Shiite-Sunni divide; the Alawite Shiite governing minority have partnered with the Shiite regime in Iran and their Hezbollah allies in Lebanon. The Sunni majority of Syria are aided by their backers in the Gulf states, Europe and the US for their own strategic interests. Turkey intervenes with its own agenda against the Kurdish forces. ISIS took advantage of the power vacuum.
The Free Syrian Army, formed from defecting Sunni troops and locals, was largely defeated in Homs by siege conditions in 2012 (the last hold-outs left last year). But the mountainous rural area north of Homs (Mohamad describes it as the “rugged area and countryside”) remains outside regime control.
He talks of life under siege in northern Homs. “Homs did not completely fall,” he said, but “regular forces have tightened the siege from all entrances, and prevented food and medicines … and the entry and exit of residents.”
This area of Homs province and Idlib are currently being bombed to end the last enclaves of resistance. The tactics are the same as those used in Chechnya, where Russian authorities view the whole population as a legitimate target. The remaining rebels remain defiant and the delicate strategic balance is in limbo.
The conflict has grown into a proxy war. More than 4 million Syrians have been displaced as refugees. Mohamad stayed in Syria but he said “most of the people in the towns were displaced from their homes because of the shelling ... I decided to stay to convey the suffering and help people.”
Mohamad is now a photographer so that he can “focus on the suffering of the Syrian people to try to move world opinion and show the continuing tragedy”. Art is always political, but in a proxy war art becomes a form of resistance by humanising the displaced. Photographs help us remember the forgotten victims of this war.
His images are moving, often of children. Or landscapes in rural Homs lit with unnatural red sunsets, as if war permeates the very air.
Mohamad makes children his subject, saying this is “because the kids always embody the sincere feelings and have the greatest influence in all respects. The children of today are suffering in Homs from hunger and poverty. Most of the children were deprived of education because of the bombing of schools and the lack of safe areas.”
The boy setting the fire in the photo is from Deir neighbourhood, Baalba, in Homs. “After regime forces destroyed the neighbourhood,” Mohamad said, “he and his family fled to northern Homs and lived in shelters. They are suffering from a bad situation because of their lack of the necessities of life.
“This child is one of hundreds of similar cases.”
Mohamad describes a different photo (above) of a child carrying a rolled up carpet, explaining he is from a village called Granada and his family “were displaced from their home after the aerial bombing of their house which destroyed it completely. The child carrying the carpet lives in an iron home which is evident behind him.”
Asked what he wants his images to portray, Mohamad displays the curious optimism of the Syrian people, even as the regime tightens its grip. He wants his images to capture the “hope and joy drawn in the minds of the Syrians. Even with the suffering you see joy taking shape in people’s faces.”
His desire is to “reach the largest number of viewers so they see the size of the Syrian suffering”. He dreams of a free Syria “that outlaws discrimination or sectarian tendencies”.
There is a gulf of the imagination that forms a barrier for activists in the west. Western governments fear arming the next jihadist movement but allow Russia to take a brutal Chechnya-style approach that has propped up Assad and even swung the momentum towards him retaining power.
There are many organisations that provide aid to Syria. Mohamad said activists can support Syria by “organising demonstrations in support of the Syrian people and through telling of their suffering to all countries of the world”.
Images have a powerful ability to cut through in this age of short attention spans as the image of the drowned Syrian child, Aylan Kurdi, showed in moving Europe to pity for the Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe on boats.
In Australia we cannot help Mohamad and the people of Syria directly, but maybe by sharing and promoting his haunting images we can help, in his words, to “post my photos to reach the largest number of viewers so they see the size of the Syrian suffering.” And the understanding caught by the lens of Mohamad’s camera of those hungry yet proud and – yes, joyful – faces can only help promote the cause of a future free Syria.
[John Shute is a Melbourne-based teacher and activist.]