One of the biggest topics in the news today is the conflict in Syria. For years now, public attention has been focused on the civil war, which has gotten renewed attention in the wake of evidence of chemical weapons being used there. Interestingly, the conflict in Syria raises two issues that have only managed to be a media subtext, if not ignored almost completely. The first issue, which has received some media attention is the millions of people that this conflict has displaced. Recent estimates put the number of internally displaced people at five million and the number of emigrant refugees at two million, which collectively represents nearly a third of Syria’s total population.
The African continent is, of course, no stranger to conflict and displacement. Consequently, in the exhibition Earth Matters: Land as Material and Metaphor in the Arts of Africa, there are artworks, like Dawit Petro’s A Total Instance of Reflexivity, which broach the topic of forced emigration due to conflict. In Petros’ case, it was the protracted Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict which forced he and his family to emigrate. In writing about his work on this subject Petros states, “Living between geographical locations; Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Canada and the United States, has required the navigation of myriad terrains. This process has provided a set of expansive relationships; an awareness of the necessity of simultaneity; and recognition of the contradictory ties that bind the dispersed to physical and psychic places.”
Dawit L. Petros (b. 1972, Eritrea)
A Total Instance of Reflexivity, Sigeneity, Eritrea/Naivasha, Kenya 2008
Chromogenic prints, painted plywood, and black Plexiglas
Collection of the artist
There is no doubt that much of what Petros has articulated in his statement and in his artworks is being experienced by so many Syrians at this very moment. The traumas of being forced from one’s home, that one parcel of land on earth that we feel belongs to us because of the connections we have formed with it, are, for those who have not experienced it, are unfathomable.
Of course, the issue of displacement due to conflict is deeply intertwined with the environmental devastation of Syria, much as it is with conflicts on other nations. The media will most often quantify the ravages of war in estimates of material losses. For example, this many homes, businesses, industries, etc., all find their way onto the tally of economic casualties of war. Rarely in the media, however, do we hear tallies of the environmental damage that war causes. The destruction of forests, agricultural land, and ecosystems, the loss of ability to manage waste and increased, war-borne pollution – all of these factors and others create environmental impacts that are seldom topics of discussion in popular media. Indeed, the land and the people are both victims of conflict. For more on the environmental impact of war make sure to read Monday’s post by Marc Lallanilla.