Daniel Nelson

Syrian chldren

Syrian chldren

Image by © Sergey Ponomarev for the New York Times

In another picture, a man watches the fighting from the window of his comfortable home.

Next, a desolate, dangerously tilting, burned-out multi-storey building fills the frame: the only splash of colour emanates from a huge poster of Hafez Assad.

Russian photographer Sergey Ponomarev's work, in the words (in another context) of a government supporter whose testimony is featured elsewhere in the Imperial War Museum's Syria: A Conflict Explored season, give "the feeling of the war but not the war itself."

Spotlighting Syria is a brave move by the museum, because as the museum's Gill Webber says, "The situation in Syria is complex, live and evolving and we know that viewponts may change in two years, two months, two days or two hours."

Nowhere is that political bravery clearer than in the short film that recounts the history of the war from its original spark - the arrest of a group of teenagers who had spray-canned a Daraa wall with anti-government slogans. Four years later the death toll is 500,000 and the number of homeless about 11 million. Every statement in the film, vividly brought to life, and death, by newsreel footage, must have been written and checked over and over again because everything about this catastrophic conflict is contested.

Several objects illustrate Syria's "war of narratives", including a gruesome barrel bomb, cut open to give a better view of the metal junk waiting to burst out to kill and maim anyone in range.

Co-curator Christopher Phillips of Queen Mary, Unversity of London, and the museum itself deserve much praise for packing a range of perspectives into a relatively small space, but Ponomarev's 60 photos inevitably will grab most attention. The work is divided into The Exodus, about refugees in Europe (a child separated from his parents at a railway station; a crowd waiting for documents to be checked; people wading ashore from an unflatable), and Assad's Syria. The former give a sense of human desperation, the latter of the indiscriminate remorselessness of war and of fascinating human details.

Overall, the mood of the exhibition is encapsulated in Ponomarev's comment about visiting Homs. Propaganda officials, he says, presented Homs as "the Government's biggest victory on the ground. But what victory? The city centre, besieged, bombed and starved into submission, was turned into a ghost town. The scale of destruction baffled and overwhelmed the senses. Nothing moved in what was once the bustling heart of Syria's third biggest city."

* The Imperial War Museum's Syria: A Conflict Explored season includes Syria: Story of a Conflict, a display on the origins and impact of the war; Sergey Ponomarev: A Lens on Syria, 60 photographs; and a public programme of events, all until 3 September. The museum is on Lambeth Road, SE. Info: 7416 5000/ lwm.org.uk/ www.facebook.com/lwm.london

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