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From Homs to Hiroshima, why are we fascinated by ruins?

In my own city in Syria, visitors are flocking to take pictures of destroyed buildings. 

“Everyone wants to visit Homs. Some areas of the city ruined by war have become destinations for people to visit.”

Hussam Wali, a final year architecture student based in Homs, the third largest city in Syria, observed to me that not only residents, but people from other Syrian cities, had begun visiting the destroyed areas and taking pictures. 

For the residents of Homs, wandering the ruins of their home city has become a part of everyday life. The urbicide of the city has led to half of its neighbourhoods being heavily destroyed. The ruins that remain are witnesses to the horrors and chaos of the city, they speak of the people who once lived and worked there, and the trauma they suffered.

For those in cities like Damascus, Tartus and Latakia, where much less damage has occurred, Homs has become a symbol of the loss, destruction and cultural cataclysm caused by the war.

Now, after more than six years of conflict, a heated debate on how to rebuild the country has emerged. In Homs, there are contrasting visions of the future. Some want to rebuild a shiny new city: a forgetful city that neglects not only its past, but also the war. Others want Syria's past to lay the foundation for its future. They want to design a city that faces its history, including its dark periods.

Homs, 2017. Image: Amro Al-Omar 

If the latter argument prevails, it will not be for the first time. Throughout history, the remains of urban decay, and fragments of tattered cities have been alluring to architects, urbanists, poets and planners. The Germans actually have a word for this fascination: ruinenlust

In many cases, ruins serve as living memories that help cities and their citizens to remember their darkest history, and the lives lost. They are often seen as architecture for peace, helping to build and sustain it.

When rebuilding Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945, a surviving building caused controversy. Should it be destroyed, or memorialised? In the end it stayed, and was renamed the Hiroshima Dome. It is now a Unesco site. According to the organisation’s website:

“This silent structure is the skeletal form of the surviving remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotional Hall (constructed in 1914). It symbolises the tremendous destructive power, which humankind can invent on the one hand; on the other hand, it also reminds us of the hope for world permanent peace.”  

But perhaps Oradour-sur-Glane in France is one of the most remarkable examples of preserving the wounds of wars. In June 1944, over 642 civilians (including men, women and kids) were shot or burnt alive by SS soldiers in Nazi-occupied France. The village was destroyed. After the war, it was decided to fully preserve what is left of the village, so the lives of people who were massacred there are never forgotten. A survivor of the massacre who lost his mother and two sisters in the carnage told the Guardian that: “It's always difficult for me to come here…I relive my village in my head, hear its old sounds, put faces to the ruins. But it's important to preserve these ruins and keep telling the story so it can continue to be passed down when we're no longer here.” 

In his book Ruin Lust, the critic Brian Dillon asked: “why are we fascinated by ruins?” He suggested that ruins (not specifically those of war): “recall the glory of dead civilisations and the certain end of our own. They stand as monuments to historic disasters, but also provoke dreams about futures born from destruction and decay. Ruins are bleak but alluring reminders of our vulnerable place in time and space.”

It is this vulnerability that I have seen in my own city, Homs, in which I spent most of my life. Streets have been turned into jungles of ruins and mountains of rubble. Mosque minarets are broken, churches are damaged and the whole city is pockmarked with bullet holes. People are losing the sense of belonging to their own city.

Despite destruction of our material culture, and collective memory, some Homs locals I spoke with are shocked, and sometimes fascinated by the ruined city. 

“When I first saw the war ruins of Homs, I had a great pain,” Nay Alhassan, a 27-year-old architect from Homs told me. Alhassan moved to Lebanon in 2012, but she still regularly makes the journey from Beirut to her home city. “My eyes showed me these ruins as if they were built before the war. I saw them and remembered the lives inside these buildings... Even when they were ruined, they looked beautiful. Because of how much I cherish these places. It is like when you love somebody so much, you always love them, regardless what happens to them.” 

Remembering the war will be very crucial to building our shared future. Buildings in a state of catastrophic destruction can help us to remember, reflect and rethink our city. They will help us to heal the scars of the war and, most importantly, to deal with our past, and to never forget. 

Ruins of wars are caches of memories. Removing them eradicates the reminders of war’s dark heritage. But what to remember, how much to remember? And what remembrance is enough? These questions will prove controversial, but their answers will be important to sustaining peace. If in the future, people were unable to mourn, or prohibited to, then ruins will mourn. And in the future, when the generations who lived the war are no longer around to recount their memories , then ruins will speak their stories.

Today, images of people amongst the ruins in Syria have been sweeping across social media. Hussam Wali, the final year architecture student, who noticed this new phenomenon said “these ruins are turning into new monuments of Homs”.

Perhaps, some of these ruins in Syria should be preserved for us not to forget what we have been through. Just like the Hiroshima Dome, frozen in time among the modern towers. 

Ammar Azzouz is a PhD researcher at the University of Bath and an architect for Arup’s London. He writes in a personal capacity.

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In independent Kosovo, families still search for their missing children

A decade after Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence, questions remain unanswered. 

On a Wednesday afternoon in March 1999, Albion Kumnova was rounded up with five other men by policemen and put in the back of a van. From the four policemen kicking in the door to the vehicle speeding away, everything happened so quickly that Albion didn’t have time to put his shoes on.

Albion’s portrait sits above the television in his parents’ sitting room in Gjakova, Kosovo. He has thick, dark hair and a handsome face. Whenever she gets a message or phonecall, his mother’s phone lights up with a picture of him on holiday by the sea in Montenegro. Nesrete Kumanova has waged an intense war to find out what happened to her son, who was 21 when he was disappeared.

This weekend marks 10 years since Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. A decade before that, brutal fighting erupted between Serbs and Albanians. The subsequent war claimed thousands of lives and further entrenched the split between the two ethnic groups. Between 1998 and 2000, 13,535 people were killed or went missing.

Gjakova was particularly badly affected by fighting. Now, Albanian flags are displayed prominently throughout the town, and there’s a strong anti-Serb sentiment. As Yugoslavia broke up during the 1990s, Serbia was determined that the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo should remain just that - a province, not a country. From late February 1998, Serbs and Albanians were at war for control over the country, which today has a population of just 1.8 million, and is a mixture of Albanians and Serbs, although the latter in the minority.  

“Every family has at least one person who went missing,” Nesrete says. Some families have as many as 10 missing. They feel unable to mourn them as dead, just in case something miraculous happens.

In 2002, after the war had ended, Nesrete got together with other parents to lobby for information about what happened to their loved ones. They staged hunger strikes, one lasting as long as 16 days, and protested in Gjakova and Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. The experience of hunger was overwhelming. “Being sad and when you have your pain with you, it’s very hard to handle it. But it’s the only choice I had,” says Nesrete. Their action had some impact, as some captives held in Niš, Serbia, were liberated. But her son was not in that group. She founded an organisation, Mothers’ Appeal, which is still going today. How many captives there were, and what has happened to them, remains unclear and a source of intense pain. 

“Without doing what we’ve done, nothing would move,” she says. “We thought we should be more active. Unfortunately, dead bodies are brought back to Kosovo – or their remains at least – and there are 1,600 others still missing from Gjakova.” 

Pristina city centre is decorated with banners and swags in preparation for the 10 year anniversary of independence. In Nesrete’s home, though, there’s nothing to celebrate.

“The independence of Kosovo has no meaning to families missing their loved ones,” she says. “The most important part of our life is still missing.”

The Kosovo government set up a commission for missing persons and gives monthly pensions to families of missing people. However, Nesrete criticises the government for inactivity and giving her false hope. “Everyone says: ‘this is going to happen’ but the result is almost nil. Every time there’s a knock on our doors, there’s another lie. I still don’t know what happened to my son.”

Many Serbs also lost family members in the fighting, but dialogue is impossible for Albanians, says Nesrete. “Serbs are all the same, they have always been like that,” she says. “Almost all of them are criminals. We have no faith in them. Even in the past in our grandparents’ time, they hung out together. They would keep an axe under their pillow and think about how to murder an Albanian. When they are born, they’re born criminals.”

The interpreter who has been sitting on a sofa adjacent to hers pauses, and exhales. “I’m sorry for translating this, but this is exactly what she said.”

To puncture partisan sentiment and show the catastrophe on both sides, Bekim Blakaj, the director of the Humanitarian Law Center, a long-established human rights organisation, has been helping to compile a book of every single missing or murdered person across Kosovo from 1998-2000. The project, undertaken by the centre, has been gruelling but necessary. “Our aim is to have a narrative for each and every person and a factual history. It is to stop the manipulation of numbers of victims and denial,” he says. “Albanians use some incredible numbers, that Serbian forces have killed more than 20,000 Albanians, which is not entirely true.”

The NGO goes into schools to do workshops, and Bekim says the children routinely cannot believe that Serbs were killed by Albanian fighters. Ten years after independence, Serb and Albanian children who were born after the war are still often picking up biased narratives from friends and relatives.

Each person listed in HLC's book has an average of eight sources to verify what happened. The work has been emotional and exhausting and several researchers were so burned out that they had to resign.

“It’s very hard because you have to be clear to the families that you can’t help them and you are just documenting what happened,” says Bekim. “But despite that they keep phoning you and you feel very bad when you can’t really do anything, especially when it comes to the missing persons. That’s the worst. But they keep calling you back.” Bringing victims together has helped some of them soften slightly. "At first they looked at each other as though they were enemies," says Bekim. "But then they realised that both sides were suffering and that they were victims with the same needs. Nowadays the situation is different – they are trying to cooperate."

Likewise, Nesrete has compiled a book with Mothers’ Appeal – it’s a list of people in Gjakova who went missing, with exactly what happened to them. It won’t bring Albion back, or give a gravestone or a funeral or any real closure, but it’s something. It’s all she may ever have.