15 March 2018

How do people experience mass violence? NIOD and the University of Utrecht are working together in a research project that will document and research Syrians’ experiences of mass violence and the dynamic of the violent conflict in Syria. The project aims to interview as many people as possible in a strategic, scholarly and purposeful manner.

Devastation in conflict areas

How do people experience mass violence? The Syrian civil war is an epic, bitter reminder of the profound relevance of this question. An unknown number of Syrians in the Netherlands have experiences with and memories of very serious violence – as victims, bystanders, and perpetrators. This research project proposes to document and research Syrians’ experiences of mass violence and the dynamic of the violent conflict in Syria. This project aims to interview as many people as possible in a strategic, scholarly and purposeful manner.

Documentation and research

Documentation and research is useful for academic output in key research areas such as trajectories and political economies of violence, the ebb and flow of refugees, and the roles of economic inequality, poverty, climate change, identity, and religion in violent conflict. In fact, due to restrictions and lack of access, never before has it been possible to study Syrian history in such a comprehensive manner. Beyond academia, this project would also be relevant in educating the broader public about these topics, and even for assisting investigations and prosecutions of crimes against humanity.

Relevance

Documentation of and research on mass violence is of scholarly relevance, and a key task of NIOD. Mass violence is not only a thing of the past but one of the most pressing global problems of our time, and therefore deserves lasting academic attention. Much like in other historical museums or foundations, interviews would constitute a rich source base for academics and researchers to use in their research. Syrian collective memory cannot be narrowly conceived as only Syrian or Middle Eastern history, but can help clarify a range of issues in violence research, from perpetration to victimization, polarization and reconciliation, religiosity and secularism, mobilization and demobilization, organized crime and human trafficking, and many other topics. Indeed, the Syrian civil war is global history and concerns the whole world.

Public Interest

There is also a strong public interest, with many millions of Syrian refugees living in Europe and the Middle East. These should be seen as future Europeans people, including victims and survivors living in our midst. Due to their exposure to very serious violence, it is not only vital for Syrians to be treated psychologically, but also to be heard societally as a group that is severely affected by those experiences. Participating in European societies, including learning the language, finding a job, enrolling in education, and having faith in democracy and the rule of law are all processes that are affected by their wartime experiences.

Research questions

This project is guided by a structured, diverse, and broad set of questions that include (but are not limited to) four chronological themes, gleaned from intersections between the specific scholarship on Syria and broader discussions on mass violence:

1. Life under Assad Sr., 1970-2000

  • How did Syrians experience social, economic, and political life under the rule of Hafez al-Assad? What were Syrians’ everyday encounters with the state?
  • How did Syrians experience (religious) sectarianism and (ethnic) nationalism? How did people become active in politics?
  • How did Syrians experience the conflict with the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1970s and 1980s?
  • How did regional differences in politics, economy, and culture shift in this period?

2. Life under Assad Jr., 2000-2010

  • Which political, economic, and social changes did Syrians experience during the transition to Bashar al-Assad’s presidency? What were Syrians’ everyday encounters with the state?
  • How did Syrians experience (religious) sectarianism and (ethnic) nationalism? How did people get active in politics?
  • How did economic liberalization affect Syrians? How was corruption experienced by the public? Which developments were important in shaping politics in this period?
  • How and why were Syrians imprisoned in this period, and how did they experience that?

3. The Conflict, 2011-

  • How did Syrians experience the broader Arab region in 2010-2011? Why and how did Syrians become involved in politics?
  • How and why did Syrians fight? With whom, and why with those groups? Why did they not fight?
  • How did Syrians experience the changes in everyday life during the war? Which significant regional differences can we observe in war experiences?
  • How did the civil war restructure Syrian society in terms of political, class, tribal, and religious identities?

4. Flight, Asylum, and Life Abroad

  • How do Syrians understand, interpret, frame, and explain the ongoing seven years of conflict? What are Syrians’ ideas about the post-conflict period, including transitional justice?
  • How do Syrians perceive European and neighboring states’ policies towards Syria? How do Syrians integrate in Europe, what obstacles do they face?
  • How do Syrian children experience the conflict, and their parents’ engagement with it? What do their parents tell them about the conflict, and what kind of responses to they develop toward it?

Approach

This research project would be carried out over a period of at least five years, with a team of interviewers. The project will benefit from cooperation with Syrian partners. In the early phase of the project, a broad-based workshop will be held to garner input and feedback on the designs of research and documentation. Towards the end of the project, a conference will present some of the outputs: an online collection of testimonies, as well as a monograph and an edited volume that aim to address some of the major questions of the project and offer new lines of research.

Click here to watch an een interview with Ugur Üngör (in Dutch).