By Karin Kristensson

Fighters and battles and bombs and destroyed buildings. This is how the Syrian conflict is depicted, Staffan de Mistura told me when we spoke a few weeks ago. As the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria, he saw that these pictures fail to tell the whole truth. But last year, de Mistura brought a photograph in front of the Security Council. A photograph that showed something else entirely. 

The story behind the photograph began in Idlib, Syria and Geneva, Switzerland. The Syrian civil war had been raging for more than eight years. Never before in his long career has de Mistura seen a war with so many different players and so much cruelty. It was autumn 2018 and twenty thousand terrorists – or Jihadists, or some other kind of opposition extremists – were hiding out in Idlib. This fact was about to justify an attack from the government, an attack which would have entrapped 3.5 million civilians in a violent battle. 

At the same time in Geneva, a group of women from Idlib came to see de Mistura, asking for help. You can help me to help you, he told them. I need to be able to show that in Idlib there are not just terrorists and fighters, but there are millions of civilians too.

So the women went back home. There, they brought together two hundred thousand Idlib residents, all of whom lit candles in the streets and in the windows of their homes. The result was a photograph showing thousands and thousands of tiny flames, reflecting the number of innocent lives which would be put out if bombs were to fall over the city. 

De Mistura showed this photograph to the Security Council, to the world, saying that This is a city where terrorists are hiding, but there are also lights, and those lights are normal people’s lights. The picture started a discussion, resulting in a ceasefire, which lasted until two months ago. 

This is the reality which most pictures of Syria fail to convey. Civilians have an important part to play in the conflict, not just as victims, but as the architects of their own future. De Mistura argues that Women in particular will be crucial in bringing a form of stability in what we hope will be a better future in Syria. 

I think this is the human side of war. Ordinary people trying to stay that way. But beautiful and inspiring as this story may be, it too fails to capture the whole reality. It is important not to forget the other human side of war – ordinary people dying or turning into refugees perceived as an inconvenience in the safer parts of the world. 

And perhaps it’s not surprising that women are left out of the picture. De Mistura recalls a UN meeting in Geneva where delegations from both the Syrian government and opposition participated. Neither of them had brought more than three women. Some believe, de Mistura being one of them, that civilian women are the ones hit hardest by the conflict. Who will represent Syrian civilians – in the eyes of the world as well as in diplomacy and politics – if women are excluded from official peace negotiations? 

The point, in the end, is to remember the agency as well as the tragedy of the civilians in the violent conflicts of the world. De Mistura told me of another photograph he saw once, of a street in Aleppo lined with the shells of buildings destroyed in battle. Two rooms on the ground floor in one of the buildings, however, had been turned into a small shop. It made sure life in that part of the street would start again, he said. That is the courage, the determination, of Syrian civilians. 

Illustration: William Bame

Karin Kristensson is a political science student with a passion for literature. In Uttryck, she likes to explore the topics of refugee and LGBT+ rights. Her days off are best spent (winning at) playing Trivial Pursuit, petting every cat she meets, and sleeping late in the morning.

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