Memories and lives destroyed by brutality in Darayya, Syria

Zaher Shehab lost his mother, brother, and five other relatives in attacks on the Damascus suburb, and could only listen to their funeral on the phone.

When seven members of my family were killed in a single attack this summer, I didn’t think that things could get any worse. My mother, brother, and five other relatives died after being hit by rocket fire on our farm in the Damascus suburb of Darayya. Thousands of miles away at Bath University, where I am a student, all I could do was listen in to their funeral on the phone.

Then, last month, Darayya became the victim of the biggest atrocity that we have seen so far in Syria in 18 months of revolution. 

You might have seen the pictures – rows of bodies of men, women and children wrapped up in white, makeshift shrouds, lined in communal graves because there were too many to bury them one by one.

It began on Monday 20 August, the second day of the Islamic festival of Eid. There was a terrifying campaign of shelling, which got worse and worse. Forces loyal to the murderous President Assad surrounded all routes out of the town. After four days, on the Friday, they invaded and went on a killing spree.

They executed hundreds - tying their hands, lining them up and shooting them. Others they dragged from their homes and killed them on the threshold. Mothers were murdered in front of their daughters, sons in front of their fathers.

Any group of men or boys found together were killed immediately. I know someone who was killed because a wooden bracelet bearing the revolutionary flag was found in his house.

My 18-year-old cousin, Morhaf Shehab, worked to distribute food to those who had been left destitute. He was kind and modest, and always concerned with helping others. He decided to take some supplies to a group in a shelter taking refuge from the bombing. But Assad forces arrived while he was there, and killed him and dozens of others. When his body was returned to his family it bore signs of torture.

During the attack on the town, many were also arrested. One Sunday, two of my cousins, aged 26 and 29, were detained along with 13 others.  In some ways this is the worst fate of all. They could be being tortured right now, as you are reading these words.

For those lucky enough not to be killed or captured by the regime, life is still impossibly difficult. The government cuts off electricity and water for long periods. There is not enough food. There is a huge shortage of doctors and medicines. Being caught with first aid equipment is a crime – many medical workers have been killed. 

One evening during the siege of the town, my 70-year-old grandmother fell ill. It was too dangerous to leave the town, which is dotted with checkpoints and surrounded by snipers. In the morning, my father woke up to find that she had died in the night.

My old memories about Darayya are amazing. It was surrounded by beautiful farms, bearing all different kinds of fruit. In spring it would fill me with hope as the colourful flowers woke the town from its winter sleep.

Now, the place is unrecognisable. They have destroyed the roads and burnt the buildings. They broke into shops to steal everything that is valuable. About 250 homes were damaged. The infrastructure is ruined, and rubbish is piling up on the streets.

So far, 683 bodies have been buried from the massacre. We only know the identity of 460 of them – some were tortured so badly, or so decomposed, that no one could tell who they were. From my extended family 30 have been killed. There are 1,100 wounded, many of whom are in need of urgent medical help. Almost 3,000 families have been left in urgent need.

I have a hard time knowing how to cope with what is happening. I do not know what to do, or how to help. All I can do is tell the world about these terrible events. The state media spread lies, saying that the people of the town had killed each other and that bastard Bashar al-Assad had sent his army to protect civilians. My friends and family feel that no one knows what really went on.

Our biggest hope is that we will eventually get justice. We keep careful lists of all those killed or arrested, and the names of those who committed these terrible acts. We are waiting for the day when we will use them against Assad and his supporters in the International Criminal Court.

Zaher Shehab is studying for a PhD in pharmacy at the University of Bath. He is from the Syrian town of Darayya.

A young boy holds up a sign during an anti-regime demonstration. Photograph: Getty Images
Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.