Berlin, Germany – This past weekend marked 55 years since construction began on the Berlin Wall. Having stood as a symbol of division for 28 years, what’s left of the Wall today serves as a stark reminder of past mistakes and the value of human rights and freedom.
This rich symbolism makes it one of the most powerful places in Europe to highlight the atrocities being committed against the Syrian people today.
The west side of the Wall is currently displaying an exhibition, WARonWALL by Kai Wiedenhofer, a Berlin-based photographer who studied Arabic in Damascus in the 1990s.
He began documenting the war in 2012, and over the course of a year, photographed Syrian civilians who had fled the country and were now among the thousands of dsiplaced people living in towns or refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan.
He also visited the Kurdish city of Kobane in northern Syria twice in 2015, and his images show the devastation after heavy fighting.
“I wanted to transport an experience to show what war does to individual people,” Wiedenhofer, 50, told Al Jazeera.
“The wall is a democratic structure that stands as a memorial and somewhere to reflect, so it’s the perfect place to show what’s happening in Syria.”
Once 155 kilometres long, less than two kilometres of the three-metre-high wall is left standing today. The sheer size of the 24 panoramic images of Kobane takes a passer-by into the middle of the war zone. Rubble, weaponry and lone figures in the street are on display, revealing scenes of an obliterated town that many people viewing – unless they are Syrian – wouldn’t have seen before.
‘The human hell’
The images are not dissimilar to what Berlin would have looked like after World War II – a link Wiedenhofer mentions – and could help put the conflict in context for a European audience.
“Many people in Europe only started paying attention to what was happening in Syria after the attack on Charlie Hebdo and after seeing images of Aylan Kurdi [the Syrian child who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea last year]. People have been trying to push it away, but now it’s coming to their doorstep.”
The exhibition includes 42 images of Syrians who have been injured in the war – stories that Wiedenhofer says aren’t given enough prominence in the mainstream media.
“The media have an addiction to the terror narrative and are influenced by the movie industry. There’s so much focus on the ‘big explosions’. What does it mean to show all this cinematography? All it does it take away from the human hell.”
He quotes Joseph Stalin: “One dead person is a tragedy; one million people is a statistic,” explaining that people relate to a story much more than a number.
The individual stories Wiedenhofer wants to tell are of those who have lost their families, their homes and even parts of their bodies. Those who will continue to suffer even after the last guns are laid down.
Stories like those of 11-year-old Sundus, who lost her parents, three brothers and 11 members of her uncle’s family when a barrel bomb exploded, and who now bursts into tears six or seven times a day.
Wiedenhofer calls her story “super catastrophic” and adds that she has had to return to Syria because it was too expensive for her to remain in Jordan.
It’s a situation, Wiedenhofer says, in which many Syrians find themselves. Other stories include that of 40-year-old Iman, who was paralysed by a sniper’s bullet and now fears that her husband will leave her because of her disability.
Impact of war
According to the UNHCR, more than four million people have left Syria since the start of the conflict five years ago, and it is one of the biggest factors contributing to the refugee crisis. Wiedenhofer is hoping the exhibition will give people a better understanding of why people are being forced to flee their homeland.
In the three months, until September, more than 400,000 people are expected to visit the exhibition.
“I found the exhibition profoundly moving, especially as it is at such a symbolic place. The refugee story hasn’t been covered in this way in Poland and this tells a deeper version of the story,” one visitor, Joanna Wojtarowicz, a 37-year-old anthropologist who recently moved from Poland to Berlin, told Al Jazeera.
Gaia Jualtieri, 14, an Italian tourist who is visiting the city with her family, said: “When it comes to this war, the news is filtered, so it’s important to see images like this. The pictures of Kobane could be from Berlin after World War II – we must learn from our mistakes.”
It has been 71 years since the end of World War II, and more than 50 years since the wall that divided Europe started to become a reality. Germany today is one of the world’s economic powerhouses, with Berlin its cultural centre. It remains to be seen what will become of Syria, and whether Germany’s recovery offers any hope to Syrians who have made it out safely.
Shoshi – who didn’t want to give her last name – is a 27-year-old writer from Damascus who moved to Berlin nearly three-and-a-half years ago. “The conflict has taken war games to a whole other level. A big part of that is propaganda and social media,” she told Al Jazeera.
“Whereas before, war was fought by the generals and soldiers, and we were all just observers, now we can participate,” Shoshi noted. “I’m against the insurgency and see it as a full-on attack by the West against Syria. I stand with my army and my president and think we should do everything in our power to stop this. But hope? I’ve lost too many friends and family to feel hope.”
Wiedenhofer agrees that individual action is key. “We recently commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. We mark so many historical war dates, and we can keep on doing so,” Wiedenhofer said.
“But it doesn’t make any sense if we don’t transfer any of this into action. This war must stop.”