19 May 2023

Ordinary objects form heart of new exhibit uncovering war's impact on civilian lives

| Lizzie Waymouth
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a pink teddy bear covered in mud and concrete dust

An abandoned teddy bear found by ICRC humanitarian workers in an apartment in Baiji, Iraq, in 2017. Photos: ICRC.

A teddy bear covered in mud and grey concrete dust. The bell and wheel of a bike left behind outside a scorched-out building. An abandoned handbag found in a ransacked apartment. When a city becomes a battlefield, these are the items left behind to tell the story.

“What happens when war quite literally knocks at the door of your apartment?” is a question many Canberrans have never needed to ask, and one the International Committee of the Red Cross is exploring through these objects in its exhibition ‘War in Cities’. It’s coming to the Gorman Arts Centre from 31 May to 6 June.

Exhibits often focus on the military or political aspects of war through maps, artefacts, uniforms and weapons. War in Cities uses personal items and audiovisual material to recount another perspective of the modern battlefield – that of ordinary people living in urban areas unwillingly caught in the conflict and forced to leave the place they once called home.

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As ICRC head of mission David Tuck told Region, the exhibition took shape from two starting points.

First, there was the “broader concern that our organisation has around the consequences … of urban warfare”. While this has taken place for as long as urban centres and war have existed, there was a renewed awareness of the “repeated pattern” as conflict unfolded in the Middle East in the mid-2010s.

In 2017, the ICRC was sent to the Iraqi cities of Baiji and Ramadi that were largely destroyed by heavy fighting. Many residents were forced to flee, often leaving personal belongings behind.

Humanitarian workers saw the destruction that had taken place and “realised there was a voice to project globally about the personal consequences of this type of warfare” – this is where the second aspect of the exhibition came in.

“The ICRC took it upon itself, with permission from people and communities, to collect a small number of objects,” David said. “[These objects were] fundamentally very ordinary, but bear those hallmarks of conflict.

“The objects will resonate with many people precisely because they’re ordinary. We take for granted these parts of our daily lives.

“We can get caught up trying to process things through data … But sometimes in having a voice built only around data and numbers, there is a risk of missing the human element.”

The objects were found in buildings just cleared of explosives, rubble-strewn streets and abandoned schools.

burnt bike wheel and bell

A damaged bike wheel found in front of a scorched building in a severely damaged neighbourhood of Baiji.

Alongside the objects collected in 2017, the exhibition contains works by Sydney artist Marwa Charmand. In a series of charcoal and pencil drawings, Marwa depicts people and scenes from cities around the world that have been impacted by conflict in recent years, including the Philippines, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine.

“We commissioned [Marwa] to provide an update as to where the exhibition was,” David said.

He said her works “bring it forward, because a lot has happened since 2017” and “spread the geographic reach”, reminding us urbanised warfare continued to take place on a massive scale around the world.

“By 2050 most of the world’s population will be living in urban centres. Urban centres will continue to be a strategic goal.”

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As areas become more densely populated, new problems have arisen for the ICRC in supporting civilians impacted by urban warfare as more people depend on increasingly fragile services.

“If one water pipeline in a densely populated urban area is destroyed, it could have a massive impact on … tens of thousands of people,” David said. “The scale and reach of human impact is possibly more significant.”

David hoped Canberrans visiting the exhibition would “take away that global sense of the environment we find ourselves in” as about 100 different conflicts took place today around the world.

He said there was sometimes a tendency for global conflicts to feel distant to people in Australia and hoped the use of personal objects and stories would make the exhibition more resonant.

“It’s important we use tools and means that resonate with people. There’s a risk in Australia these contexts and countries and cities feel distant and remote.”

‘War in Cities’ will show at F Block Hall, Gorman Arts Centre from 31 May until 6 June. The exhibition is free to enter and open from 11:30 am to 7:30 pm on weekdays and 10 am to 4 pm on weekends.

There is a free opening night event at 6 pm on 31 May with drinks and a panel discussion. Visit the website to register.

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