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Preserving Syrian memory, resisting denialism

An edited transcript of a discussion in the Survivor Strategies strand of the Freedom Across Borders conference, London, 6 July 2019.

Participants: Juan delGado, Qisetna; Sama Kiki, Dawlaty; Emily Oliver, PositiveNegatives; Journalist Pierre Vaux.

Transcript by Amr Salahi and Kellie Strom.

Art from Khalid’s Story, one of a trilogy of short comics collectively titled A Perilous Journey, illustrated by Lindsay Pollock for Positive Negatives in 2015.

Thank you very much for being here today. Today’s session is about preserving Syrian memory. There are two kinds of war happening today in Syria. One war is with bullets, rockets, barrel bombs and the other war is a war of memories. Bouthaina Shaaban, one of the advisors for Bashar al-Assad, the dictator—

Is she here?

No! Bouthaina Shaaban, the advisor of Assad, the dictator, just started an oral history project, which tells you that they understand very well how to play this game. And if we don’t do everything we can for the memory of those who sacrificed a lot, who have died for freedom, who have chanted, ‘Yes we still want freedom,’ it will be lost.

So, keeping all that in mind, we are happy to have this excellent panel. And with us today is Pierre Vaux, a journalist, and he has covered Ukraine and Russia, so he’s familiar with the Russian aspect which we can relate to Syria.

And we have Sama Kiki of Dawlaty. The word Dawlaty means ‘our state’ and they are working on their oral history project. And we have Juan delGado from Qisetna, and Qisetna is a project to select stories of Syria.

And finally we have Emily Oliver of PositiveNegatives, which is a very exciting project that combines between art, narratives of refugees, and academic concerns. And today I’m going to ask for people on the panel to talk about their work and after that we can discuss in detail the issue of preserving the Syrian memory. So, would you like to start please, Juan?

Juan DelGado:
Well, I’m so happy that Qisetna is on the panel today. We started this project, Qisetna in Arabic means  ‘our story.’ We started this project in 2013, quite a while ago, because from the very beginning we thought that memories and stories were extremely important to share. We remember talking in Brussels to international foundations, arguing that in the case of Syria, culture is also a priority. We have, more now than ever, culture as a priority for Syria, and what is important, politics are important but also the memories of a people, the intangible heritage of the memories and the stories of a people, that’s really one of the main causes why we started Qisetna in 2013, yes.

Sounds really exciting. Pierre, would you like to tell us about your work?

Pierre Vaux:
Yes, so I started covering Russian military support for the Assad regime going back to the beginning of the war, but particularly once Russian groups in Syria started appearing in August 2015. And what rapidly became a case of covering—it wasn’t just covering the military aspects of the war, it was covering the information war, because the entire Russian operation was contrary to what they were claiming it was. They claimed they were fighting ISIS, most of their—almost all of their airstrikes targeted areas that were controlled by non-ISIS opposition forces. And we rapidly saw that there was a confluence here. It wasn’t just an information war in Syria, it was a conflict where it was tied to their relationship with far-right actors in Europe, encouraging xenophobic sentiments, working to both amplify the refugee crisis by bombing people at home, but at the same time stirring up hatred against those people fleeing fighting, to the narrative about where they were coming from, but that’s—yeah—basically focusing on trying to map that out and track it.

It’s a very important to highlight the role of Russia in all this. The Syria Campaign did a report about disinformation in Syria [Killing the Truth, December 2017] and they found out that I think three quarters of the Twitter accounts responsible for spreading propaganda in America that led to electing Trump were also very active in spreading lies on Syria.

Emily, would you like to talk about your work?

Emily Oliver:
I’m very grateful—and thank you—that if you sort of go to the middle of these beautiful booklets [Freedom Across Borders conference programme] you get to see our work, which is far better than my words, so please do have a read.

We work by bringing together people with deep contextual knowledge of different issues that are informing our headlines today, and that might be because they’re actively in the headlines so often because of the result of disinformation. That’s why we work with researchers to try and bring pressure for those headlines, for public discourse, to be accurate, to be evidence-based.

We work with artists. Often we’ve got lived experience bringing them together with people, in the case of this story, that can have the power to kind of spark through their common humanity, and re-spark humanity in these often very dehumanising situations, and hopefully spark some empathy.

We know how dangerous empathy is. Empathy tends to reinforce in group mentalities, and so again we go back to why we work with researchers to try and really rigorously bring in critical thinking into the public discourse, so that people are thinking for themselves, and have the skills to critically analyse, which is why we also work in education as well.

Thank you very much. Sama?

Sama Kiki:
So for Dawlaty, ‘My State’ in Arabic, it’s a Syrian civil society organisation, and focuses on building the capacity of the Syrians about civic engagement, which is something we have never experienced before in Syria, and learning about their point of view about justice, and how they see justice in Syria in the future.

But about our work on oral history, we have a Syrian oral history archive which should be launched in November. We will have a platform where testimonies should be online, people could hear or listen to those testimonies, and also researchers could use them to analyse and come up with some recommendations for policy makers, and also for reports.

Mainly we are focusing on listening to people who lived through violations in Syria, but also to listen about very personal stories from different areas, especially that we know how hard the regime worked to split even small cities like Homs or Daraya, cities and neighbourhoods who are very close to each other but they lived two different experiences. And by doing so, we are bringing stories, personal stories from neighbouring areas who have been through two different lives or two different realities, but also to listen to each other and understand, like, even if you are not under siege you will have your own struggle because you see the neighbour that’s next to you living under that siege, which is bringing people more together to hear about their own experience and also help maybe see each other as human beings with our own struggle.

But the idea behind the oral history came when young people were giving interviews for another report and they started saying that no one is hearing us, no one cares about how we see things or what are our demands, so that’s why actually we thought maybe it’s very useful, and very precious to listen to the youth, and also women.

I would just like to ask Juan about the platform Qisetna which is not political, a project for Syrians where anyone can access and read and write and publish, so can you tell us about this more, that Qisetna is not political, like who writes and who shares his memory from Syria as a refugee who left the country, he doesn’t need to show this political opinion, so can you tell us about that?

Question (Amr Salahi):
Okay, we’re talking about denialism, but there is something else you know, which the news media does, which is to emphasise certain aspects of a situation at the expense of others, and sometimes we don’t just have to confront lies, we have to confront the truth as well. Like for example the current war, you know the media portray it as between Assad and Al-Qaeda, and that’s something very beneficial to the Assad regime because the Assad regime can portray itself as the alternative to HTS which used to be Al-Qaeda. Well, you know, when the conflict in Syria is reduced to these terms, how can you bring back the people’s story, the actual story of civil activists on the ground, the actual story of people in Syria, the actual story of what the Assad regime does to its own people, which probably from a Syrian perspective is much worse than what Al-Qaeda or HTS, or even ISIS have done in Syria?

Juan DelGado:
OK, well, we are an online platform. From the very very beginning we wanted to promote the Arabic language, we wanted to focus on the human side of Syria, the Syrian community. You know there are many, many other projects that focus on politics. We wanted to reclaim a space where Syrians could feel safe and talk about their stories. That is really the uniqueness of our approach.

We’ve been talking to people from Daraya, we’ve been talking to people from Yarmouk, we’ve been trying to work with children in many areas using social media, and accessing and collecting their stories. I remember talking to one of the boys that had been collecting the books in Daraya library, and he wrote an extraordinary story about Daraya library. We published the story in one of the magazines that one of our collaborators worked in, the New Statesman.

You know, when we were talking to these young people, we were using the social media, trying to access the human story, something that many people in the UK and Europe were not accessing at the time because the media, the mainstream media, were portraying Syria, or the situation in Syria, by just focusing on, you know, one aspect of reality.

I remember talking to one of the boys, and he said, ‘I can’t talk to you right now because my father was killed yesterday.’ So we were extremely aware of how some of the children we were working with in Yarmouk in 2014, November 2014, we asked them, we said, ‘We want to do a workshop with you,’ a storytelling workshop with the children, with the Jafra Foundation. You know that was something extraordinary for us to do, because I’d never been in Yarmouk, I don’t know these children, but we were trying to use social media to penetrate, and trying to access and really encourage these stories to be coming so we could disseminate it in our Qisetna online.

And the second questions to our panel, what would you like to add to that?

Pierre Vaux:
Well, in terms of the media representation of the war between Assad and Al-Qaeda, this is a self-fulfilling prophecy because that’s always been the position of the regime, and that’s something that was engineered as well if you look at how airstrikes were distributed.

But I think concerning media representations, it’s worse, because ISIS was a threat to people in the West, therefore for a long period of time the war was presented entirely as an ISIS-orientated conflict. When that ended at Baghouz, and at the same time that the Syrian regime has compressed everyone into a tiny pocket in Idlib. It gives the impression where you meet plenty of people who will tell you, ‘Oh I thought the war was over,’ because the media attention has dropped off so much.

And I think in a way that news portrayals will show you the ever-shrinking sections of front line on the map, it doesn’t really demonstrate that it’s not a single conflict with a front. There’s still a conflict and struggle going on in areas that the regime retook. And I think for example much more media attention could be focused on the resistance going on in Daraa going on in recent weeks where you have activists protesting and toppling the statue of Hafez al-Assad. That sort of thing, where even in areas that for quite a while now have been recaptured, showing that level of struggle still going on, I think that’s something that would make a huge difference in portraying the war as a struggle for individual rights and the ability to express that, rather than a war between front lines, or troops here and troops there, etcetera.

Emily, through your work, even if it’s not on Syria, have you noticed that the people telling their stories manage to contradict some of the disinformation coming through media?

Emily Oliver:
Yeah, and in some ways it’s hard to pick a story. One of the comics we created went to Parliament as part of a review on modern slavery, and hearing back from some of the parliamentarians,‘Oh! Even though I was sitting there reviewing this I’d never really engaged with it,’ was interesting.

It is always prolifically difficult to track change, you know? It’s slow, it’s really messy. We all know that it never happens fast enough, and some of the moments just recently I found most inspiring, it was at a school I went to in east London. It was a comic for different—it’s not in a Syrian context but we take a kind of broad systemic view about some of these issues, and it’s about UK citizenship, and it was created with some young UK migrant activists, they’re brilliant—Let us Learn—look them up. And they created a story, it’s about someone called Ola, about her experience of having irregular migration status in the UK, and it’s a love story.

And going into a classroom and mentioning this comic, and then seeing hands popping up, going ‘Oh, I’ve been reading that in my spare time,’ and not that they’d ever thought of it as educational, this comic has gone viral, and they’d been speaking to their teachers, who said for the first time that people felt able to talk about their experience in this class, and the level of the conversation significantly shifted, and then the role of the teacher being able to bring in, ‘And this is what the law means.’ And it’s that critical kind of questioning, I draw a lot of inspiration from that. And I hear the Syrians I speak with—I think I mentioned Diala Brisly who’s an artist we’re working with, a Syrian artist, whenever I speak to her, her commitment to education and to learning, I really drawn a lot of strength from that.

Sama, so you work with Syrians, and you mostly work with Syrian women, right?

Sama Kiki:
Women and youth.

Women and youth. Have you noticed that they have their own priorities in terms of storytelling, things that you might not have perceived but things that they think are important. How do they see their priorities?

Sama Kiki:
Yeah, mainly the people providing their testimonies will be kind of driving the discussion because they will be speaking about personal stories, and trying to describe what happened with them, but not by just telling facts or describing things, but also about remembering the colour of the car that got them to the detention centre, and all these things when they speak, and they remember things, they kind of filter the things that they don’t care about and emphasise the other things they want to speak about. And we only encourage them to talk about their own story. For example, while speaking we encourage women not only to focus on how the detention of her husband happened, not the story of her husband but more about how that affected her, or how she felt, or how she struggled, or how she survived, or how she overcame all of these things.

So they are identifying their own priorities, which is sometimes very surprising. For example, for youth, we discovered that leaving their partner, the girl that this guy loved, it was their priority that day, and they wanted to tell us that. ‘It was very painful, because I couldn’t see her for a long time, because I am besieged, and she can’t really communicate with me, and at the end we lost this relationship.’ And it was one of the priorities. And other things—a lot of youth emphasise the importance of education, and how they see justice through giving them back the five-six years that they lost without education. Most of them were detained, but they didn’t speak about detention, they talked more about the importance of education for them.

I’m going to invite questions, so I think I saw you first.

Question (Dr Mustafa Alachkar):
Thank you. So we did something up in Manchester, in Rethink Rebuild Society, we did a project for the Home Office called ‘Memories from Syria’ where we had fifty-odd people talk, like recording short videos about their experiences in Syria, during the refugee journey if you like, coming to the UK, being in the UK, that was a brilliant project.

When I kind of go away and think a little more honestly about it, I kind of wonder whether we used those people, their narrative, their stories, to advance our own—as an organisation—our own political cause which we think is just, fair, and we should advance it. And I guess I’m using our own, my own reflection, and our own experience which I still think was worth doing, I’m thinking how can we keep the people’s stories very close to them, and keep them from being exploited, sometimes by us to advance our own causes, however just and fair they may be, but also to stop them from becoming and being used in this kind of counter-propaganda as well. It’s almost like counter-propaganda against this anti-refugee rhetoric, against the Russian propaganda, against the regime’s propaganda—those people, I think their stories are so precious, sacred, and important for us not to maybe use them in that way.

I don’t know if I have an answer to my question. I mean Emily was talking about using researchers so that we try to be objective to what’s going on, but it’s really difficult, if you’re definitely going to use some of those really personal stories to advance something that matters to you more than to the person with the stories.

Yeah, I wanted to ask a question and also to reflect a little bit on what the gentleman, Mustafa, just mentioned. How—from your experience, if you highlight a little bit more—how do you see the differences between the individual and collective memories? Because there is always this fine line between the individual and the collective memories, and also the imagination. Because also after eight years of the conflict, we as Syrians, we do have our own imagination about our own conflict, or our own history, childhood, all of these things, so this is also—I always think about it that it’s very tricky.

And at the same time, reflecting on what Mustafa just said, I always think about the representation of the Syrian people in different ways, through pictures, through their telling of their stories, telling their narratives, and how much, at least in the humanitarian action for example, we know that the pictures of the Syrian women, and the Syrian refugees, or from any other conflict, would be used basically to get more funds.

So how, again, how to be ethical towards people in need, and how can we be more ethical towards, and also held accountable towards their narratives and stories without again exploiting them for various interests?

Juan delGado:
Well, I mean Qisetna, I have to say, it’s a volunteer-run independent project. We don’t receive money from anybody. We have been approached after four years of working by UNESCO, BBC, Amazon. They want the stories that we’ve been producing. We haven’t been producing the stories, we’ve been mentoring normal people who are not writers. We are approaching them and talking to them. And some of the stories take about two months to produce.

Some people say to me, ‘You are not even Syrian, why are you interested in Syria?’ Well this is my own reflection as a Spanish person, my country also went through a war, and my grandparents have a trauma that I inherited through my parents, so maybe after two generations of the Spanish Civil War, the war in Spain, I’m trying to find answers through something that other humans are going through.

So maybe, because I have dedicated seven years of my life to this project without receiving any penny, and really going through a lot of experiences where people say, ‘Who is it that’s telling my story?’ Well, I am, and we want the people in the UK, we want people in the UK to know who we are. That it’s not the media that’s portraying the Syrians. We’re taking the risk to listen, and sometimes we’re listening for more than two months until the story starts coming out.

Somebody said to me, ‘You know Juan, you asking me to write a story has put me back into my human side. Now, right now, I’m realising how disconnected I’ve been from my human side.’
So we want to work with that. I think that there are many other projects that are working, collecting stories, which is amazing. But we wanted to share that. And some people have come and said, ‘We want to buy your story.’ We say, ‘Our stories are not for sale. Our stories are for the people who want to know who the Syrians are.’

Sama Kiki:
I would like to answer Mustafa’s point. It is exactly how he described it. It is a propaganda to bring someone’s story and try, like, to finish your own puzzle. You have already a framework, you are working on something ,and you bring the story and fix it here because it suits this framework, it’s exactly propaganda. You shouldn’t do that, and if you want to use this story later, you should bring those people who told this story and make them part of the whole process from the beginning until the end. They should be part of the whole, the design you are trying to, or the outcome you want to create. They should be part of it, they should be empowered and then given the power just like Zrinka mentioned today, it’s not only about empowerment, I want to have the power. And that’s why you need capacity building and education. And you need to—at the end if you really want not to use this story as part of your propaganda, you need to include those people from the beginning, and let them lead until the end.

And actually, at Dawlaty, we have been aware of this, because even if you listen as an artist for example, if you listen to this story and then you create your own drawing, and show it, it’s not ethical. Because at the end of the day, you interpret that story in your own way without even getting back to the person who gave his or her story to you, so you should work with them. Maybe you can as an artist can interview this person, work together, listen to each other, and then come up with something about them. So I just want to tell you that it is a propaganda if you just wrote the stories and fix it or put it somewhere.

Emily Oliver:
I live in a state of constant radical anxiety, and I’m down with that because that’s how it needs to be, to constantly question, the politics of questioning representation, ‘is this story essentialising?’

I absolutely agree with you, this is why we are bringing together artists, researchers, people with lived experience. And increasingly as we create comics our animating force is radicalising the creation of knowledge, because it must be people who are experiencing the sharpest end of the suffering who are setting the agenda, who are shaping it.

And I’d say increasingly, the stories the stories we are creating, we have got no idea at the beginning what they are going to be like, because they are so different to what I would have guessed, because people are taking them, they are shaping them, they are writing to us to say, ‘This is what I want, it’s got to be done here, researching that field,’ and I think that’s essential, and it’s probably still not good enough.

Kholoud, and then Clara?

Kholoud Helmi:
Thank you. Just in case we have to differentiate between two things, if I may use the verb which is ‘using’? So, using the stories of these people——
Me, personally, I would love to tell my story to everyone if I am the one who is telling my story, if it’s my own version, and no-one is interfering with that, or interpreting this according to their own point of view. And we share this, like, if—I am a journalist, I forgot to introduce myself, I’m sorry—so if you go and speak to people, a lot of Syrians, they do love to tell their story. If you go and sit with anyone in any gathering, old women, young women, and men, they love to tell their story because they feel that they expand in this, because they have lost all their history, they have lost all their memory.

I have nothing to connect me with my past, not even a little photograph of myself in my home. If I tell my story, it could be in the head of another one, and then they can tell my story, and I really relive again in the heads of other people. I have a right to tell my story because no-one else is going to tell this story if you don’t listen to this and retell the story of my suffering.

At the same time, I am really against abusing, because most of the media and the charity organisations, when they are telling the stories of people, they only concentrate on the suffering of the kids of the camps, and how they are struggling, and how women are crying, and how they are all in black, and they are just desperate for a spoonful of something, for a hand from the generous people, and thanks to them they are helping them survive.

I am against this because most of the time when somebody is there to interview me and the camera is only concentrating on my eyes, and they are only waiting for the moment when I can remember something very emotional, and they only grab that moment, and they film me when I’m crying—I’m against this. I don’t want to be crying in front of everyone—unless I choose to, because I want to cry sometimes. So there is a huge difference between using these stories to tell their own rhetoric or abusing them in a very bad way.


Clara Connolly:
I just wanted to move it more away from the individual to the collective in the sense of, one, asking Amr’s question again, what is denialism? And two, what is the purpose of these wonderful collections of stories?

Because I kind of have a feeling in the accountability workshops they’re saying, hm, accountable in the future, because there’s no forum at the present. I’m sort of thinking of that denialism in the present, but maybe saving these memories for the future, because it’s always the victor that tells the stories, and Juan’s illustration of the Spanish Civil War is a really good example, now that the most interesting fascinating stories are coming out of Spain told by the losers and not only by the victors, and if you have a project where it’s let’s admit it for now, it’s the losers’ stories that you’re telling, you’re preserving something precious for the future, so that the victor doesn’t get to tell the stories.

But I think Amr was thinking more like in the present, or I was initially thinking, how the hell are we going to get the politicians and the journalists to not just listen to the individual stories, but hear the narrative of what’s really going on in Syria? I’m not sure, that’s a much broader question than I think what you’re engaged in, but I do want to repeat, are you doing this work for the future or for the present?

Can I respond to Clara’s question? The reflections are amazing, and it’s really important to think about it in this way. But also on a practical level, we have the victors writing their own narrative now, and we have different projects, as we can see here, of people writing Syrian memories. Is there an opportunity or a space to have a concerted effort, where instead of having individual small different independent organisations doing this, versus the regime, and several regimes, Russia’s and Syria’s etcetera, writing this. This is not going to be as powerful—we don’t have the same tools, we don’t have the same resources—so how do we go forward to organise a concerted effort to be able to resist this?

I’m going to take some questions.

Since this is a discussion about, let’s say storytelling, first, I cannot say how important it is, but one of the reasons—I met an amazing Syrian youth about two months ago, and he’s now about sixteen years old. We forget sometimes something—we as people who have lived eight years of war in a time where we can look at things, and we can critically analyse what’s happening, and have our own opinion—there are many of the younger generation who have lived war in a totally different mind state, and they have very little knowledge about the very early days of how things started, and they only see the very end of it.

That’s one of the topics. Second, about the collective and the personal stories, both are important, but—I think we are all aware of the studies that were used for campaigning, for money—but it’s important how stories affect people. Of course collective stories of a society are very important, but personal stories, always they have a totally different experience for people reading them. And that’s important.

Now the two points I want to discuss, one of them is this. One of my friends in Germany once wrote on Facebook something saying that, ‘I’m not going to answer anyone who asks me to tell them my story anymore.’ He had a very interesting story.

‘Because all I am going through is meeting some people who record my story, and then it ends with me crying, and I come back home needing a whole week to recover from that. So if you know any activist, anyone who wants to know of my story, I don’t care, I’m not interested.’

That’s important.

And second, different amazing projects, they have amazing stories. I’m quite active on Facebook and on different social media. How are these stories reaching these younger generations, and reaching people who need to read them? Because if we have an amazing story and it’s not accessible, or it doesn’t reach as many people as possible, that’s a failure.

I think we’ve got time for one more question, so I’m going to give the priority to Families For Freedom.

Hanan Albarmawi of Families For Freedom, via interpreter:
Good afternoon. I believe that saving these memories is very important for our Syrian revolution. As I’ve said before, and I reiterate that the Syrian revolution is totally different to any other revolution. So my personal belief is that keeping this memory, the Syrian memory, is an individual responsibility for every Syrian or anyone who is interested in the Syrian revolution.

These challenges that we face, from the regime supported by their allies, it’s a very big challenge because they are aiming for us to lose these memories, to forget them, so it’s the role of everyone at all levels in all organisations, individually, personally, and I insist that it starts with the individual, as a mother, as a father, as a teacher, a doctor. They are all responsible to teach this revolution to anyone, to keep it in the memories of everyone.

Thank you so much. I’m going to go back to our panel. I’m going back to you, Pierre, and the issue of denialism.

Pierre Vaux:
Well, there are two main forms of denialism that are a threat to maintaining the memory of what’s happened in Syria. The first is disinformation, which is the more widely covered in the media aspect, through social media campaigns, propaganda from state-aligned broadcasters.

But the first thing I’m going to say—there’s so much of that has been covered anyway, all the different narratives of different actors put forth—but the reason that’s got such a fertile environment is that there’s a vacuum created by the two main spheres of control.

If we’re talking about Idlib for example, where you’ve got regime controlled areas where you’re only going to get people who are friendly to the regime, or you’re going to get Western reporters or people from reliable outlets who are limited by the requirements of access, and so will restrict themselves in how they cover the conflict there. On the other side of the front line you’ve got HTS controlled areas where there’s a similar restriction. You have to work with someone like Bilal Abdul Kareem, following you around the front line. That creates an incredibly rich environment in which you can spread false narratives, because no-one’s actually able to produce reliable reports out of the area, except for actually taking reports from Syrians there, which is the main thing, and you know, compiling them and trying to look at it objectively.

And this is where the second form of denialism is, I think, more frightening for me long term, which is annihilation of memory through omission or through deletion. And we’re seeing that at the moment. There’s a huge problem where people are using the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to take down YouTube videos. It’s incredibly easy, and one of the big problems is that a lot of YouTube content which was uploaded, the authors are now dead, or they are unable to access, they’re in jail, or they’ve moved on, they don’t have access to the internet anymore. It only takes a small number of requests made to delete an account for copyright infringement and it will automatically be deleted, and the account holder, if they are not alive, they are unable to counteract that.

You also see that with Twitter, and people mobilise the response that we’ve got towards extremism and disinformation from governments, especially with tech companies like Twitter and Facebook, this actually is being utilised by bad actors.

You saw that recently with other conflicts. The Indian government were able to pressure Twitter to remove accounts with a whole load of open source intelligence, of analysts who were reporting on the brief clashes earlier this year between the Indian and Pakistani air forces. And they got a whole swathe of Twitter accounts deleted, simply by claiming that they were posting extremist content or whatever, or engaging in inauthentic activity, which is a really frightening element to the new Twitter terms and conditions. It could hypothetically be used to target activists coordinating any form of Twitter campaign.

So there’s that side of it. There’s also a side where using the wider forms of shared memory, things like Wikipedia. If you look at the Wikipedia article for Aleppo right now, there is no mention whatsoever of any regime atrocity during the siege and assault. There is a brief mention of rebel forces shelling Sheikh Maqsoud for example, but no mention whatsoever of the complete obliteration of the city, or the forced population transfer at the end of that. So I think this is where these other projects for maintaining Syrians’ own accounts, rather than relying on media accounts, are vital, because these platforms are being utilised to destroy this.

Sama, do you have any thoughts?

Sama Kiki:
I just want to share that a part of the categories inside the Dawlaty archive, which should be announced soon, it’s focusing on preserving content development memory, and the uprising memory, because a lot of people are really struggling to tell the story of the conflict, because in many ways we say that this story is political, so we focus on political stories because it’s preserving the meaning of the uprising, because the regime is working so hard, and the Russians are working so hard, to let us forget, or let the people who din’t live through these amazing months, who din’t see peaceful demonstrations in the street, they want to work hard to let us forget this.

So in Syria I don’t think anyone could tell the full story without being political. It is our life. That’s how the regime made it. Every single day is political. And so I just wanted to emphasise that.

Preserving the memory of the conflict, how it developed, how it started, it is very crucial for Syrians.

Emily, do you have any thoughts?

Emily Oliver:
Finding the story, the individual story in that wider collective, is so important. It’s imperative in order to be able to understand the system, but it’s also important for that individual. We increasingly find in this thing that we call trauma, where people are experiencing it collectively, they are able to move through it. So while we might focus perhaps with an individual—though increasingly we are looking at how stories are co-created by groups—it’s always in that wider context, and we are working always with researchers, and trying to work with those researchers who are doing the really brilliant practical stuff, so also those stories are contextualised in a kind of evidence base, so that they can then go on and potentially be used in policy.

Someone asked about how stories are used, and I would say in some ways I’m always really nervous about anything as a means to an end, always. And that a story in itself—sorry, this lady talked about it, and I loved how you said it: ‘Yes, I want to tell my story, if it’s me, and if I feel like it,’ and if you can tell it in your way. I really appreciated that.

And when I speak with people, sometimes they’ll say, ‘I’m sick of telling this victim story.’ They’re often people who have got incredible humour, and that’s how they choose to tell their story.

And oftentimes I think, as much as you say it’s the victors who often tell the story, I think it was Kellie, one of the organisers, who said one of the most enduring narratives of the Spanish Civil War is Guernica, and art can have this potential to puncture through these discourses, and it might only be far into the future that they live, but I think often there are opportunities to open up conversations in the political sphere, even online, in different areas, and we have to always be constantly looking for them.


Juan delGado:
With Qisetna, we are always open to collaboration. We are always talking to Sama, and the Syrian society in Manchester, in Nottingham, in Leicester. We are trying to engage, you know, and build community. We need to have, rather than having one individual project, trying to join forces, because one of the things that we need is to really be clear about what kind of message we want to send. We in Qisetna, from our humble perspective, we identify for example the racism going on in Turkey, we want Qisetna to be translated into Turkish, so the Turkish people can read the stories of Syrians. We want to do that, and it’s something that we don’t have any money for, but we have the heart and determination for that to happen, so we’re talking to the Turkish university, and we’re telling them, this is extremely relevant for the time now, because the Syrians living in Istanbul, in Bursa, in Gaziantep, they need their stories to be heard by the Turkish people.

Thank you so much everyone, really amazing.