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Images of war

by Chantal Lebrat and Irina Chilobreeva

Photographs that bear witness to more than a century of historical events and human suffering can help bridge the gap between generations and transcend cultural barriers. At least this is the impression left by the reactions which the travelling exhibition People and War has provoked in several Russian cities.

“War never breaks out by itself. There’s always someone behind it. Its roots go deep into the hearts of nations, of governments, it is the bitter fruit of their self-serving and unprincipled acts”, said a student visiting the exhibition for a second time.

People and War is a collection of 140 photographs taken from the archives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Visitors, pausing in front of each picture like pilgrims making requisite stops on a long journey,
gradually discover 130 years of armed conflicts through the eye of a camera. A slow-moving procession across a silent space where the visual impact of the images overpowers the intellect, where emotion, awakening memories of traumas that have left permanent scars, opens the door to deeper awareness. Nevertheless, even though the exhibition covers just about every war fought over those hundred-odd years all across the globe, not a single photograph depicts the suffering endured by the Russian people in the Second World War. The explanation is simple: in spite of its numerous attempts, the ICRC was never allowed to work in the Soviet Union during the period in question. Still, the thoughts of Russian visitors, young or old, are inevitably drawn to that Great Patriotic War which claimed so many lives, a war which ended more than half a century ago but remains painfully present in people’s minds. Perhaps the constant recurrence of black and white also makes visitors realize that the image of war is the same the world over, one of endlessly repeated suffering.

In a year the exhibition has travelled to Moscow, Rostov, St Petersburg, Nalchik, Volgograd, Astrakhan and Gorno-Altaisk, eliciting in each and every place the same response, echoing like a cry from the past. Three, five,
eight thousand visitors have thronged to see these pictures of war, the haunting faces of the victims, the anguish that is “overwhelming in its restraint”, as a war veteran said.


Remembering past suffering

As if the exhibition had a cathartic effect, everyone’s feelings reach a new pitch: some of the women are moved to tears, other people commit their innermost thoughts to the pages of the visitors’ book, children and youngsters write poems and words of hope, of caution and of wisdom. “Your exhibition has opened our eyes,” they say. Many people think the photos have a powerful impact and should make everyone aware of the need to safeguard peace. “This exhibition won’t go unnoticed,” wrote a fifteen-year-old. “Everyone who sees it is moved and should realize just how serious the consequences of war are. The future is in our hands.” Is that where the real message lies? Many youngsters seem to see it that way. As a class of teenagers beginning to realize the extent of their future responsibilities wrote: “The photos help you understand the pain of those who are caught up in a conflict; they make you think of the future of mankind, the need to fight for peace and promote ideas of tolerance and good will”. There are dozens of other, similar comments: “Let us not repeat the mistakes of the past”, “Down with war”, “I don’t want such horrors to happen again”.

The profound impact of the photographs is evident in the spontaneous comments made by the visitors. “The pictures are remarkable,” said one student. “They are far more gripping than words.” A schoolboy pointed out that the exhibition encourages reflection and complements history lessons because, as he put it, “you are confronted with the faces of real people, not just dry phrases in a textbook.” Members of the military offer their impressions. “This exhibition makes us see that the army was not created to make war but to protect people,” said a navy officer from St Petersburg. And one young Moscow officer expressed his surprise: “Why don’t they tell us anything about these treaties in military academies?” he asked. “This exhibition is really very useful.”

A showcase for the Red Cross

Of course, the exhibition also aims to make the public more aware of the work accomplished by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. “We don’t know very much — and I’m no exception — about the work of this very useful organization,” acknowledged a woman who had come to the Volgograd exhibition from some 40 kilometres away. Many visitors agree that the Movement deserves greater recognition, and some actually propose their services. “We were very much moved by the exhibition,” wrote a class of 14-year-olds from Astrakhan, “and we would like to work for the Red Cross.”

Local Red Cross committees have played a very active role in organizing the exhibition. They are the ones who keep the media informed, advertise the event and, as far as they are able, look for suitable premises. In return, the ICRC associates them with it, and this boosts their public image. “This exhibition means greater prestige for our branch,” affirmed the president of a local committee. “It enables us to show people that, in a way, we have international stature.” At the same time, it helps local committees to establish or further strengthen their ties with the regional authorities. Finally, some find it to be a highly motivating experience. “This exhibition has been very stimulating for the staff of our committee,” said the president of one of them. “We see what the Red Cross can achieve and we find our own work much more interesting; we feel that we are part of a much larger undertaking.”

The exhibition also provides an opportunity to organize information sessions and refresher talks for the entire staff. “We’re not always familiar with the subjects raised,” one of the participants acknowledged. “We’ve never had any literature on some of them.”


Stimulating discussions

In addition to the exhibition proper, the ICRC organizes mini-events designed to bring about greater understanding of international humanitarian law and encourage people to think about related issues. These events — contests, round tables and other meetings centred on a particular theme, book, or idea — never fail to attract the attention of the media. They are held on the same premises as the exhibition and are attended by students, schoolchildren, historians, lawyers, photographers and leading figures from the community. “The discussion was very beneficial,” commented a history professor from the University of Gorno-Altaisk who had gone to a meeting with about 30 of his students. “It’s so important to get young people to think about these things.” A slogan contest held in Astrakan on the theme of the protection of civilians was praised by the media, and local television crews came twice to film groups of teenagers sprawled on the floor writing catchy words on strips of paper in the hope of winning a prize. “We had already held some events,” said a representative of the local Red Cross committee in Astrakan, “but never a contest like this one, which was a huge success. We learned new organizational skills that will stand us in good stead in the future.” In Gorno-Altaisk, a debate about a book1 written by a former ICRC delegate attracted many young people who said that they had “gobbled up” the book in a few hours. Beneath the delegate’s manifest modesty, they detected the strength, courage and generosity of a true hero. “Young people need ideals to believe in,” said the Director of the Gorno-Altaisk museum. “Nowadays, they’ve got no one to identify with, no role models. They’re going through a serious crisis and increasing numbers are committing suicide. The Red Cross may be all that is left of a moral order which, sadly, collapsed with the unleashing of free market forces.”

The exhibition will travel eastwards through Siberia, where its vivid world of black and white will continue to draw people together in silent communion.

(1) Marcel Junod, Warrior without weapons, ICRC, Geneva, 1982. Translated into Russian under the title: Voïn biez aroujia.

Chantal Lebrat and Irina Chilobreeva
Chantal Lebrat is an ICRC dissemination delegate in Russia. Irina Chilobreeva is her assistant.

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