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Kafranbel Mural Raises Concerns on The Future of Memorialization

This week, Raed Fares, a prominent Syrian activist, shared pictures of a recently completed mural depicting the chronology of the Syrian revolution. The mural is located in Kafranbel, a town in the Syrian province of Idlib made famous by its residents’ signs and banners skewering the Assad regime and expressing outrage that the world has not done more to stop the killing in Syria. At 24 meters long and comprised of over one million pieces of stone, the mural traces the Syrian conflict from the peaceful demonstrations in 2011 to the present day, and includes pictures of important opposition and civil society leaders. The creators of the mural also included pictures of the project’s funder, Ghassan Aboud, a Syrian businessman and owner of Orient TV and Orient foundation who has written several articles attacking minority groups in Syria and has used his media institution as a platform to encourage similar views, as well as Faisal al-Qassem, a controversial Syrian Al Jazeera talk show host who has been accused of inciting sectarian tension.

Aboud (right) and al-Qassem photos as a part of the mural

Following the posting of these pictures, many Syrians took to social media to express their objection to Mr. Aboud and Mr. al-Qassem’s inclusion in the mural. In particular, many alleged that Mr. Aboud was only included because he funded the project. Indeed, Mr. Fares, seemed to acknowledge this in a response to one of the many comments on his Facebook page.

Raed Fares response to questions on Mr. Aboud: “Donate money that memorialize martyrs by names or numbers and your photo will be added”

While SJAC is not in a position to comment on who should or should not be included in the mural, this incident points to a more troubling prospect: the use of money or power to influence the memorialization process. As one of the core tenets of transitional justice, memorialization (i.e., the creation of museums, memorials, and other symbolic initiatives) is linked to the idea of keeping the memory of victims alive, while ensuring public recognition of past crimes. Such initiatives have the potential to contribute to the creation of a historical record and prevent the recurrence of abuse. Memorialization can also be divisive and lead to increased sectarian tensions, especially where conflicting narratives exist. In such cases, it is not uncommon for political elites to co-opt the memorialization process to promote their own version of history. Indeed, as the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, Farida Shaheed, has pointed out: “In memorialization processes, some actors may use the battlefield of memory to further their own agendas, imposing definitions of perpetrators and heroes and establishing categories of victims.”

As the first memorialization effort since the beginning of the uprising, SJAC is concerned about the precedent this may set. It takes time to curate an accurate symbol of conflict, and haphazard representations that don’t involve the larger community can distort memory in the long term. This risk underscores the importance of SJAC’s documentation efforts. Through the collection and preservation of documentation of human rights violations, SJAC will facilitate the telling of victims’ stories — in accountability and memorialization processes, but also to be remembered by all Syrians, historians, and the broader global community — thus enabling Syrians to resist any attempts to influence or rewrite history.

For more information and to provide feedback, please email SJAC at [email protected].