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Yemen activist once held by rebels slams UN peace drive as ‘naive’

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LONDON: Suffering has become the status quo in Syria but the casualties of its seven-year conflict are drifting from the public eye.

The world’s attention span dwindled with the decline of Daesh in the region and Syria is increasingly seen as just another Middle East crisis, warned Lina Khatib, head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House).

“The military defeat of ISIS largely contributed to a perception that the story is over for Syria and everything else that happens is just routine,” she told Arab News. But for millions forced to flee their war-torn country, the struggle is far from over.

On the streets of Beirut in neighbouring Lebanon, people have grown accustomed to the sight of homeless Syrians huddled in doorways and women with young children shivering on blankets at the side of the road.

Speaking at the launch of her new video art exhibition, 24 Hours on Hamra Street in London on Thursday, Khatib spelled out the dangers of compassion fatigue and the routinisation through which conflict in the Middle East – particularly events in Syria – are often perceived.

“I felt that people have started to think of conflict in Syria and elsewhere in the Middle East as normal and this is very disturbing because it dehumanizes both the victims in the conflict and also the people who are ignoring these conflicts.”

Her footage, shot over 24 continuous hours on Hamra Street in Beirut, brings the viewer’s gaze down to ground level, where those left begging by the loss of their homes in Syria scrape a living on occasional handouts from passersby.

Khatib, who is also a visual artist, used her phone camera to record a few minutes every hour on the busy shopping street, where pedestrians walk past, oblivious to those whose lives have been placed on hold here.

“This is about the human dimension,” she said during a panel discussion entitled Keep your eyes set on Syria. “I feel like I could write a whole book asking for empathy but it’s not going to be as effective as the exhibition upstairs.”

She also collaborated with Damascus-based heavy metal band Maysaloon to produce a short documentary chronicling their determination and defiance as young musicians finding a voice amid the chaos of war. “Cultural expression is another avenue for discussing what Syria is going through today,” she said.

The video installation, which is part of Chatham House's Syria From Within project, reminds viewers of the human cost of a conflict that has forced 5.5 million people to flee Syria and displaced a further 6.6 million inside the country since 2011, according to The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR.

In the past year, 50,000 refugees have returned home from Lebanon, despite concerns over their safety. The Lebanese government says the country can no longer cope with hosting an estimated 1.5 million Syrian refugees and is pushing ahead with a controversial programme to facilitate returns.

“Since the beginning they considered the refugees as visitors,” said Fadi Hallisso, CEO of Basmeh and Zeitooneh, an NGO working with Syrian refugees in Lebanon. “Many politicians are misleading the public by pretending that the war has ended in Syria and now it is time for the refugees to return.”

As a result, he said, donations are drying up despite the enormous need for ongoing compassion and support.

The exhibition at P21 Gallery in London runs until Oct. 5, 2018.

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