“This Should Not Be Repeated”: Civilian Devastation, from Syria to Ukraine

Cover photo: A graveyard for unidentified victims of the Syrian war, in the northwest city of Idlib, last December. Since Putin began bolstering Assad’s deadly campaign in autumn 2015, Syrian documentarian Fadi Al-Shami says he has seen more “nameless bodies” than ever before, with the first six months of intensified Russian raids killing an estimated 2,000 civilians.

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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 people, 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.”

The sprawling Karama displacement camp near the village of Atma, Idlib province, May 2021.

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.”

With her infant on her back, Um Ahmed walks through their displacement camp after a severe rainstorm, near the town of Kali, Idlib province, last December. “I would rather return to my home and destroyed village than stay in a camp,” the mother told Al-Shami, adding: “The situation has become intolerable.” According to the UN, over 90 percent of Syrians live in poverty.
Children weep over the lifeless body of a young girl, the victim of a Syrian regime artillery strike on the village of the Maaret al-Naasan, Idlib province, last February. Five of the girl’s family members were also killed in the attack, including another child.
The young girl is placed in her early grave — a mass grave.
On the crumbling wall of a Idlib house that was rendered a Russian military target, Syrian artists Aziz Asmar and Anis Hamdoun paint a mural in solidarity with the devastated people of Ukraine, in the city of Binnish, province, last February. “What’s happening to Ukrainians today,” Asmar told the photographer, “Syrians have been going through for 11 years, including the destruction of homes and the displacement of the population. This should not be repeated.”
Asmar (right) and Hamdoun, who previously memorialized George Floyd in a 2020 mural against the injustice and injustice, pay tribute to the joint struggle of Syrian and Ukrainian civilians.
Mothers flee with their infant children through a smoky olive grove after a suspected Russian air raid near their homes in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, Idlib province, May 2021. The photographer says that scenes of Ukrainian families escaping the conflict on foot reminding him of his horror-ravaged homeland. Humanitarian organizations have named both Syria and Ukraine as among “the most dangerous places in the world to be a child.”
Young schoolgirls meet a vibrant balloon-bearing clown in their displacement camp, near the village of Harbnoush, Idlib province, last October. “A smile despite the pain,” says Al-Shami, adding: “The miseries and worries of displacement are difficult to bear.”
Amid the ruins of his bombed-out home, Abu Khaled tears up as he gazes into a portrait of his son who was killed in fall 2015 by a suspected Russian airstrike in the city of Douma, near Damascus. Al-Shami, who captured this painful moment just a few months after Putin’s first airstrikes in the conflict, says the father’s devastation foreshadowed the increased civilian death toll under the lethal airpower of Assad’s ally.

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Elle Kurancid is an independent writer based in the Mediterranean region.

Fadi Al-Shami is a freelance photojournalist based in Idlib province, northwest Syria.

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