TWELVE YEARS INTO the catastrophic war in Syria, and after five months of Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, a tormenting truth grips Damascus-born, Idlib-based photographer Fadi Al-Shami. “One of the largest militaries in the world turned Syrian bodies into testing grounds for its lethal weapons,” he reflects — and now, Ukraine’s hospitals, schools, residential neighborhoods, and critical civilian infrastructure are also being targeted by Russian forces.
Like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, the photographer continues, “Vladimir Putin aims to wreak havoc on as much civilian life as possible,” leaving thousands of Ukrainian civilians, young and old, dead and millions displaced, crucially, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II.
Around 1,200 miles from Ukraine — “the developing world’s breadbasket” — continuous conflict has forcibly displaced more than half of Syria’s population, creating what UNHCR calls, “the biggest humanitarian and refugee crisis of our time and a continuing cause for suffering.” Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed, including, on average, at least one child slain or injured every eight hours over the past decade. According to Human Rights Watch, the Russia-Syria military alliance, with its “indiscriminate aerial bombing of schools, hospitals, and markets — the civilian infrastructure essential to a society’s survival,” has committed war crimes, counting attacks that “may amount to crimes against humanity.”
Through a series of images, mostly captured over the past year and across the northwest province of Idlib — Syria’s last opposition-held enclave, where the war’s “worst displacement crisis” persists — Al-Shami shows us a conflict of the human spirit with the inhumanity of war.
A mother carries her child through their displacement camp after a severe rainstorm; a pickup truck carries the shrouded body of a young girl who was killed by an artillery shell.
A bombed house becomes a colorful antiwar mural; a family flees through a smoke-filled olive grove after the bombing of their neighborhood.
A displaced girl accepts a balloon from a volunteer clown; a weeping father grips a picture of his youngster who was killed by an airstrike.
Frame by frame, the photographer reminds us not only of the universal push and pull between life and death, but also how war accelerates and complicates this mortal struggle, often condemning noncombatants to early graves, mass graves, and inescapable economic and humanitarian free fall.
As Russia wages a withering assault on yet another civilian population, I ask Al-Shami, What is the vital lesson of the war in your country?
“War is not a school from which a person learns,” he replies, later adding that a potential teaching lies in “understanding the importance of life” — and thus refusing to render civilians “military targets.”
Elle Kurancid is an independent writer based in the Mediterranean region.
Fadi Al-Shami is a freelance photojournalist based in Idlib province, northwest Syria.