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10 Feb, 2017 16:53

Dresden memorial to Aleppo sparks controversy & protests

A memorial dedicated to the victims of the battle for Aleppo erected in Dresden, Germany, has stirred controversy, with some seeing links to radical Islamists in its design. It was also slammed by German right-wingers, who staged a protest at the unveiling.

The memorial, designed by Syrian-born artist Manaf Halbouni, was unveiled on Dresden’s Neumarkt Square on Tuesday. It’s an installation formed from three upended buses set together. Halbouni’s creation is said to draw parallels between the ongoing war in Syria and the bombing of Dresden in 1945 by Britain and the US.

The artist was inspired by 2015 reports of Aleppo residents standing bombed-out buses on their sides in front of their houses to protect themselves from sniper fire. 

The three buses recreate a famous photograph taken by a Reuters photo-journalist during the battle of Aleppo. However, in an interview with German newspaper SZ-Online, the journalist’s colleague, who allegedly saw the construction, said the barriers were erected by radical rebel forces against the Syrian Army, raising questions as to whether the artist was showing support for Syrian radicals through his work. 

The original picture depicts a flag flying over the vehicles, depicting the old symbol of the Ahrar al-Sham, a radical Islamist group that was allied with the Al-Qaeda-backed Al-Nusra Front. Ahrar al-Sham, which has since changed its official flag, was accused of numerous atrocities, including a massacre in the Syrian province of Latakia in 2013 when 190 civilians were killed. Ahrar al-Sham is also accused of persecuting and killing Christians, and the group reportedly massacred a number of Christians while controlling the city of Idlib in north-western Syria in March 2015. 

Members of the German anti-Islam movement Pegida, headquartered in Dresden, rallied against the monument both ahead of and during the opening ceremony. They criticized the timing chosen for the installation, falling as it did just before the anniversary of the World War II Dresden bombings by the western allies, and booed Mayor Dirk Hilbert as he presented the monument. Pegida supporters called the memorial “degenerate art” and slammed the mayor as “traitor of the nation” for allowing it to be erected. 

Some people on social media also lashed out at the installation.

“Aleppo memorial in Dresden – piece of art – prototype constructed by Islamists,” one tweet read. 

“An Islamist-memorial was erected in Dresden to distract attention from the memory of the destruction [of the city] in 1945. Anyone who does not like this is right,” another tweet said.

Halbouni told the press he wanted the memorial to symbolize “peace, freedom and humanity,” stating that there was “no other political message” behind it. “It’s a peace memorial, a modern Statue of Liberty,” the artist told DPA news agency.

Regarding the discussions that the artist knew of the connection of the image to terrorists, and that he intentionally praised them, Halbouni said he knew only that the original bus barricade had been erected to protect civilians and that he never meant to direct his work towards or against any warring party in the Syrian conflict.

“I read about the bus barricade for the first time in March 2015, in an article in the Guardian, and there was no exact information on who had built it,” Halbouni told broadcaster MDR, adding he did not mean to support any of the rival factions there. 

Halbouni also told Der Tagespiegel said that he hopes he will have a chance to explain his project to the residents of Dresden, noting that people “have to listen to each other.”

Kevork Almassian, a political journalist and Middle East expert, has voiced concerns that the artist may be “completely ignorant and doesn’t have a clue” about the flag erected on top of the busses, or he may have “simply used the installation to give a legitimacy to Ahral al-Sham.”

“The whole conception of this installation in controversial, and it gives a cultural legitimacy, a cultural cover to a terror group that doesn’t even believe in culture and civilization,” Almassian said during debates on RT.

In turn, his opponent Mohammed Shafiq, chief executive at the Ramadhan Foundation, said the monument doesn’t have a political background and is “a tribute to those people [who died in Aleppo].”

“This is humanity, this is refugees, this is innocent people losing their lives. They paid a very heavy price and this is to commemorate that, this is to say that we will never ever forget these people.

“This trash talk that we hear from our colleague is just a propaganda… This is just remembering and reaffirming our commitment to protecting innocent lives everywhere in the world,” Shafiq said.