With more than 4 million Syrians made into refugees by the ongoing civil war in their homeland, many young activists in exile are trying inform people about the tragedies of war through both acts of protest and the arts.
According to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, more than 240,000 people have been killed during fighting between forces loyal to the Syrian government and rebel groups.
With many Syrians holding demonstrations and marches in European countries and the United States, Tamer Turkmani, a 25-year-old photographer and designer from Homs, decided to embark on a project of his own: he collected images of more than 50,000 Syrians who had been killed during the uprising and gathered them into a single panel.
Syria Deeply sat down with Turkmani, who recently took his exhibition to Washington, D.C., and put the photos on display in front of the White House.
Syria Deeply: Tell us about you and your involvement at the beginning of the revolution?
Tamer Turkmani: I was in the military service in the al-Ishara battalion in Damascus, and when we heard snippets of news about the revolution and protests in March 2011 we contacted our families in Homs. They refused to talk about it, fearing for our safety. I left Homs in May that year, and I saw with my own eyes the peaceful protests in Jouret Shiah and the rest of Syria. I went back to my friends in Damascus and told them about these demonstrations and the regime’s excessive use of violence towards them. That’s when I made a decision to defect from the army because I was scared that we would be forced to carry out military operations [against peaceful protesters].
On June 23, 2011, I was able to escape from the army and go to Homs, where I joined the media in Jouret Shiah and started filming demonstrations.
Syria Deeply: What was life like at that stage of the revolution?
Tamer Turkmani: The peaceful revolution and the government’s arrests were in full swing. Protesters faced extreme and excessive violence [at the hands of] regime forces. There were massacres in Homs, especially in the Baba Amr neighborhood. There were also executions of young activists … the terrifying fueling of sectarian conflicts between the parts of Syria that were in support of the regime and those with the opposition.
Meanwhile, the protesters were chanting, “Syrians are unified.” “The people and the army are hand in hand,” was one of the slogans. Many people opened up their homes to welcome Syrians displaced by killings and arrests, and many homes became field hospitals.
Syria Deeply: How did you continue your activism? And how did you avoid getting into trouble while so many young people were being targeted?
Tamer Turkmani: I stayed in Jouret Shiah and commuted between places, trying to avoid security forces. Once a sniper shot at my head and got me from the left side, but the injury was not fatal. My friends forced me to leave Homs for fear of getting caught. I went to Damascus, where I stayed for 20 days and received treatment, but the region was invaded by the army and I had to relocate to Daraa, and there I began my healing and joined the local media center.
I documented and photographed demonstrations and raids for six months, during which I was shot five times in different parts of my body. The last time I was in Syria, we were heading to the border to evacuate people and take them to the separation barrier between Syria and the Jordanian border when about 15 of us were ambushed [by government forces]. I was shot in the head again and went to Jordan for treatment.
Syria Deeply: Tell us about your collection of photos of victims in one panel? How were you inspired to put it together?
Tamer Turkmani: While browsing Facebook, I saw pictures of a massacre in Idlib that was committed with explosive barrels, and I thought that I should do something for these victims, so I collected photographs and other images in order to start assembling pictures of victims. I had 210 pictures … I was sure that if I put them in one frame [it] would look dull, so I decided to make a large panel for 10,000 victims. I wrote a letter and asked friends to post photos of the victims they knew, and so many people reacted to pictures of victims who they knew. I received pictures of women and children, and began collecting images; I had 3,500 images by the third day and 11,000 images by the end of the first week.
Syria Deeply: How able were you to check the photos? Did you worry that you might be receiving pictures of people who had died in other wars? Were you afraid of losing credibility?
Tamer Turkmani: I had worked a lot by that point. I received the first, middle and last names of each victim, which I would confirm with notary offices there, then resorted to special programs documenting images, and used Google and YouTube for videos of victims. Sometimes I was also able to get in touch with the families of the victims and hear their stories.
Syria Deeply: What did you do after collecting more than 50,000 pictures?
Tamer Turkmani: I started looking for funding to support the printing and production of these images, and later decided to establish a sit-in in front of the Syrian embassy in Jordan to show our work, after I had already received approval from the Jordanian intelligence services. Afterwards, I was surprised to get a call and a meeting request from the general intelligence branch in Jordan. When I met with the Jordanian officer, he beat me and insulted me. He yelled, “Are you the jerk Tamer who organizes sit-ins?”
I responded, “My name is Tamer Turkmani, and I requested a formal sit-in, which could have just been denied.”
The officer replied, “An official was upset at you, your paintings and your sit-in, so he contacted me.”
I told him, “I’m an artist, and I have a right to contribute in any way possible to tell the world about my tragedy, and I hope you respect that.”
He replied, “Go to Europe, where they have human rights. We do not have or want them here.” He then proceeded to insult my family and me.
After that incident I decided to travel to Turkey, and managed to smuggle the picture out of Jordan to America, and then contacted the Syrian Human Rights Network, and they told me that the picture would be displayed in Washington, D.C. They were able to smuggle it from Jordan so it didn’t get confiscated by Jordanian intelligence.
Syria Deeply: Did you have to pay the cost of making the picture out of your own pocket?
Tamer Turkmani: I collected about 15 percent of the costs of [the] picture from my friends, which was about 260 dollars, and the Syrian Human Rights Network handled the rest of the costs.
Syria Deeply: What materials were used in the manufacturing of the picture? What did it look like in the end?
Tamer Turkmani: I used poster paper because this made it cheaper to produce the picture, since I encountered difficulty in funding at the beginning. I used this principle … each 30 m were assembled and glued together in a way that would erase the geometric spaces between images. The length of the entire panel was 167 m long and 150 m high, and the size of each image was 5 cm. The picture contained exactly 50,005 photos.
Syria Deeply: Can you tell us more about your exhibition in front of the White House in Washington, D.C.?
Tamer Turkmani: This kind of event would be a challenge even for large organizations. But I managed to do this work myself from behind a screen and through contact with the world and presented it to the Syrian community in America and a large number of audiences, which made some noise and attracted the press.
Syria Deeply: How did you feel when you found out your art had made it to the United States?
Tamer Turkmani: That day I imagined the feelings of the mothers who knew that the images of their dead children had arrived in America, and I felt that I probably had given them something to slightly lessen their pain.
Photo courtesy of Tamer Turkmani