Abandoned in Idlib

Atmeh camp clings to the side of a hill on the edge of the Syrian-Turkish border. Colored plastic bags flap like flags trapped in the rolls of razor wire that separate the two countries. Turkish soldiers watch from a guard post on the hill above. And just to be clear, Atmeh camp is on the Syrian side of the border, part of Idlib province now under the control of the opposition.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced child Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

As we enter the camp the scene is messy and chaotic. Water carriers and foam mattresses are being unloaded from a couple of small trucks, an ambulance screams past on its way to a Turkish hospital with a newborn child. A moment of panic and everyone scuttles for cover as a Syrian warplane is spotted in the distance, a truck mounted Doshka swivels and scans the sky, the danger passes and people re-emerge, a black plume of smoke rises from across the valley.
As first impressions go, Atmeh does not feel like a place of refuge. More than twenty thousand Syrians are living here, the largest camp for the internally displaced in Syria, the decision to come would not have been taken lightly, driven by fear and desperation and with nowhere else to go.

One after the other, thousands upon thousands of tents spread amongst the olive groves. The soil is rich and red and for a moment looks almost picturesque; the olive branch is a symbol of abundance, glory and peace but so far it has only provided a little shade from an unremitting sun. Drinking water is delivered by tanker, it’s not always enough, there is no electricity and the candles often cause fires and more heartache, many of the children seem to have coughs and colds.

Atmeh Refugee Camp, Idlib, Syria. June 17th 2013. Internally displaced Syrian refugees in the Atmeh refugee camp, Idlib province Syria

Fetid streams of sewage run down the hill as bare footed toddlers play, women do battle with the dust that permeates every pore and try to keep the inside of their tents as clean and tidy as the living rooms they left behind, desperate but still dignified. The men though are few and far between.

It’s June and already the heat is fierce, still it will get hotter and then another winter will come and with it the rain, the red earth will turn to rivers of mud and mix with the shit that doesn’t drain away.
With its much needed wealth of experience in dealing with awful situations like this the United Nations Refugee agency and World Food Program are unable to work here without the cooperation of the Syrian government, protocol preventing humanitarian assistance. The only help being provided comes from a small group of Syrian NGO’s based inside Turkey and a handful of Syrian expat charities. I came with the Camp Zeitouna Project charged with bringing some entertainment for the children, building a playground and football pitch, helping with education and holding creative workshops, a small distraction from a life of continuous struggle in a war that doesn’t discriminate against the innocent.

The children are not backward in coming forward, swarming around us asking for photographs to be taken, posing with gap toothed smiles and victory signs, holding our hands as though lifelong friends or long-lost uncles, till now the only fun had been provided by whatever could be put to use, an old bicycle inner tube or a plastic bag tied to a piece of string, popping the caps of water bottles. They have already been labeled Syria’s lost generation and are happy to feel as though they’ve not been forgotten, but we only have the power of distraction – those with real power cannot even overcome issues of protocol.
A little girl takes my hand, I ask her name, Mariam she says with a cheeky smile, a bob of blonde hair and eyes as blue as the not too distant Mediterranean. Where are you from Mariam I ask, Haas, she tells me. Do I know Haas she asks, I tell her I don’t but wish I did, she asks me my name and I tell her, I tell her I am English and that until very recently I lived in Damascus. Does she know Damascus, I ask, she doesn’t, Hass is a long way from Damascus we both agree.

A day later driving through the Idlib countryside we pass through the small town of Haas. It’s almost deserted, bullet riddled, bombed and buckled, this is the Syria we are familiar with now, war torn and devastated. I think of Mariam and her family, in which street did they live, which house. It would have been a typical Syrian town, I imagine her and her friends heading off to school with their pink backpacks. I can’t really imagine what Mariam has already had to endure, living in a muddy field surviving on hand-outs is the best the world has to offer her just now, the crisis in Syria is complicated we are often reminded and protocol has to be followed.

‘There are 6.2 million people, including 2.5 million children, displaced within Syria, the biggest internally displaced population in the World. The pace of displacement remains relentless. Well over 1.8 million people have been displaced in 2017, many for the second or third time’ UNHCR.

I wrote and published this back in 2013 but have decided to re-post since little has changed other than the recent arrival of COVID-19 to add insult to numerous injuries.

For further reading I have compiled a list of 14 great books on Syria ;

https://johnwreford.wordpress.com/2020/04/02/syrian-literary-list/

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Syrians Unknown

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Syria, a country torn apart by a relentless war, five years of disturbing headlines, dreadful imagery, chemical weapons and a refugee crisis not seen since the Second World War: this is what we know of Syria.

Brutal media headlines reducing innocent people seeking peace and security to mere statistics and derogatory adjectives.

Individual stories and histories are removed as the media simplifies, homogenizes and represents people through stereotypes: often the sole source of information for the wider general public. After years of conflict, what does the public know about Syria and its now tormented people?

Turkey is currently hosting around three million Syrian refugees. Whilst the most vulnerable are living in camps, the majority are determined to continue their lives, not only to survive but flourish and follow dreams, overcoming adversity and the constant hurdles that the stigma of simply being Syrian brings

The reality of strong personalities, creative and inspirational people who in many cases prefer not to be labeled refugees, some are heroes and deserve the praise and attention but most are  ordinary people forced to do extraordinary things to survive, wanting only to be judged on their own merits not as refugees or even Syrians.

War is dramatic and the media needs exciting images but for the most part the people caught in the middle are not exciting or dramatic they are normal people with normal backgrounds.

As a photographer who lived for so long in Syria it has been very hard for me to engage with the media narrative, not wanting to take sides despite my own feelings and not wanting to be part of the misrepresentation of the crisis, painfully aware of how little any contribution I make will effect change, yet as my many Syrian friends struggle and fight to survive I feel an obligation, as futile as it maybe.

The project Syrians Unknown had been in my mind for the last four years and I pitched the idea to several media outlets but without success before finally being accepted as an exhibition at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, the images will also importantly go into the museum archive alongside those of Sir Wilfred Thesiger, arguably one of the greatest travelers of the twentieth century and a personal source of my early inspiration.

I chose to shoot the images at night in black and white, in the shadows and simply strip away distracting context, I want the viewer to look these people in the eye and connect on a human level, I have also included snippets of the long conversations we had over often several meetings and countless cups of tea and coffee.

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As a Syrian I am not special. I’m just grateful for the chance to move ahead, to have success in my career and to be close to my family.
I traveled where my Syrian passport could get me, and wherever I go people tell me “a bright future awaits you”
I believe I do

The exhibition will run until the 30th September Details below:

Syrians Unknown at the Pitt Rivers Museum

The exhibition is dedicated to all those Syrians who have shown me kindness, love and friendship, to those who we have lost and to those who will rebuild and flourish.

 

The Pigeon Men Of Damascus

One of my enduring memories of living in Damascus will always be the early morning ritual of my neighbor’s pigeon’s swoop and circle above my house. While I sip coffee on my rooftop he would wave and whistle at his birds, even when the war started they continued to fly, they still do. The formation they rarely strayed from their flight path, much like the fighter jets that also became a morning ritual and one I wish would not endure.

Syrians know the men as Kashash al Hamam, almost every working class neighborhood has one, men of dubious character, so dubious in fact their testimony is not accepted in court, although they’re hardly pushers or pimps. I am sure most Syrians in exile reading this will feel a peck at their heart strings; looking down from Qasyun as the sun is setting and among a thousand minarets are a thousand flocks that swirl and eddy over the city.

Innocuous it may seem but their reputation as fly-by-nights has been earned through guile; kidnapping and extortion are all part of the sport – when a neighbor’s bird is lured by a feathered temptress onto the roof of the pigeon loft, a net is waiting, and then begins the harangue and haggle. Mostly it’s a game and all the contestants know the unwritten rules but from time to time blood is spilled.

Morally too there is dispute; Kashash al Hamam are deemed un-Islamic, spending too much time and money on their birds and not enough with their family, and of course the fact that the sport is carried out on rooftops that afford a voyeuristic vantage point, open courtyards where modesty can be disregarded.

In my time exploring this fascinating world I found less of the darker side, constantly being warned to stay away from the edge of the roof so as not to annoy the neighbors, for the most part the men I met just wanted a distraction from the usual stresses of everyday life, a cigarette and a cup of tea.

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Now as Syria is being ripped apart by a brutal war and the Daesh virus spreads unchecked across the country, the self-styled Mullahs of the so called Islamic State have issued a Fatwa outlawing the keeping of pigeons, the reason farcical in the extreme; the sight of the birds genitals as they fly overhead being offensive to Islam. It would be funny if it were not so desperately sad.

The fabric of Syrian society is being torn to shreds, once tolerant and accepting it’s now divided and bleeding, the bearded firebrands are not welcome in Syria, perhaps it’s not the keeping of pigeons that is the problem but that the dove is a symbol of peace.

Sabah relaxes while his pigeons fly around the rooftops of Damascus Syria

I lived in Syria for ten years including the first two and half years of the war, I ran foul of the security services and was placed under investigation, follow my Damascus Diaries for the unfolding drama.

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Syrian Resilience, A Portrait.

I photographed Syrian farmer Mohammed Darwish in late 2009 while on assignment for the Financial Times, this was three years after the worst drought for nine hundred years and two years before the beginning of the current Syrian war.

Mohammed was forced to leave his farm in Hasekeh in the north east of the country after successive crop failures, over the course of the drought hundreds of thousands of other Syrian farmers were forced to migrate south to the cities which were often already overcrowded with refugees from the war in neighboring Iraq.

How much the drought impacted the war is open to debate but there must be little doubt that socio economic factors must have contributed, the war has touched every segment of Syrian society but the poorest needless to say suffer most, millions of refugees in the camps of Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey are from the most vulnerable communities.

Mohammed was determined to continue working the harsh Syrian steppe and resist migrating to the city, we found him tending a flock of sheep on a narrow strip of land currently under Syrian government control but sandwiched between the deluded forces of the Islamic State to the east and west.

Needless to say I have no idea how or where Mohammed is now, like so many Syrians I met and photographed over the years, I do though smile when I remember him asking if I was going to take a thousand pictures and when we asked if he had anything waiting for him back in Hasakeh he replied only an old mattress, but you can’t eat a mattress he said and drew heavily on his cigarette.

My fingers were freezing as I fired off the thousandth frame but I wanted to capture the resilience etched in Mohammed’s face.

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I lived the first two and half years of the current Syrian crisis, read more from my  Damascus Diaries here: Damascus The Beginning of the End