If black is the colour of the Islamic State, then grey is the colour of destruction. In Lorenzo Meloni’s extraordinary images, the mountains of rubble, the skeletal ruins, the dust-veiled avenues, even the scrubby plants in what was the city of Kobane emerge in overlapping shades of grey.
The life force, on the other hand – humanity – stands out against this landscape of despair, in murals, T-shirts and scarves of fuchsia, turquoise, crimson, sunshine yellow. The pre-war photographs Meloni has collected, marred by their own spidery explosions, depict a thoughtless technicolour world of flower-filled weddings and vibrant sunlit gardens; today, colour in Kobane is willed, almost defiant: children’s bright sweaters glow in the concrete scree, a pair of balloons waver above a hospital bed.
In mid-September 2014, 130,000 people, most of them Kurds from the canton of Kobane in northern Syria, fled across the border into Turkey to escape advancing Islamic State forces. A four-month siege of the city ensued, during which the battle for Kobane was fought at close range by the Kurdish men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Units (YPJ), with the assistance of repeated coalition air strikes. Some civilian families remained in the city, huddled in basements, helping the effort as they could, unwilling to countenance defeat. In January 2015, the Kurds began to regain ground; on the 26th of that month, the Islamic State was routed and the city fully reclaimed by the YPG and YPJ.
What then? Some – even many – families have returned to their city, desperate to leave the refugee camps to which they’d been consigned; but they returned to unimaginable devastation. The cost of saving Kobane from the Islamic State has been enormous, not just in lives lost, but in the way of life itself, which has been altered beyond recognition. Where once there was a house, there is indecipherable debris; where there was a school, pocked walls and sliding piles of sodden paper; where there was a garden, scarred earth and denuded trees snapped like twigs.
In late June – exactly six months after their defeat – the Islamic State again attacked the city, massacring 146. They were again overrun, and Kobane’s citizens have set about reclaiming and, one hopes, in time, rebuilding their homes.
Meloni, through his photographs, conveys not only the barren, jumbled vistas of this post-apocalyptic cityscape, but, movingly, the stirrings of quotidian normality that flicker in the chaos. We see a clutch of cheerful little girls, apparently at play. Two women attend them, one grasping a fir sapling that sprouts, incongruous, from the rubble, while the other appears lost in thought. We catch a mother as she feeds her twin babies on a makeshift mattress: she is dressed as if for a garden party, her hair caught up in a bun, her patterned frock elegantly draped over her crouching form. She turns to the window, to the light, in what may be alarm, her left arm holding behind her a bottle for the swaddled infant she can’t, for now, see. The tiled floor is patterned, the wall behind her cratered and cracked. Scattered just beyond her reach lies a cell phone and cigarettes. In another photo, an older man sits, agog, in one of the Middle East’s ubiquitous white plastic garden chairs, its seat carefully softened by a rug. He leans forward, as if in conversation or watching a game of chess. It’s a familiar sight – he should be at a table, perhaps at a cafe or in a town square, surrounded by other men, smoking, talking, drinking coffee. But in Kobane last August, the rest of the scene had simply evaporated: this man waits alone, at the ready in his smart blue shirt, small and human between a giant tumbleweed of wires and a distorted metal carcass, the hollowed hulk of an apartment building looming deathly behind him.
Meloni’s most straightforwardly beautiful photograph is also the most painful to behold: it depicts a man bathing in the Euphrates. He squats naked, almost gleaming, at the water’s edge, head down, examining a shoreline demarcated by algae. The river’s placid pale-blue wash reaches to one side; sand hills undulate in the background; keen vegetation bursts along the banks. There is no destruction visible here, no death; there is no broken concrete; nothing is grey. Meloni’s image stretches before us in gentle, natural colour, beneath the vast, impeccable sky. How, we must wonder, can this exist beside the city’s horrors? And how can the brave people of Kobane, who have lost so much, hope to retrieve not only a semblance of their modern lives but this, too – this ineffable, innocent pleasure in an undamaged land? What is the way forward from here?