A pair of tired eyes peers over the photo page of my beetroot coloured passport. “Occupation?” he asks me. “Student” I reply.
Next to the custom official hangs a poster showing the Syrian dove caught in mid air, wings spread and proudly carrying an olive branch in its beak, all around it cannons are aiming. Each cannon is branded with one prominent news channel logo after the other, CNN, Al Jazeera, BBC. They are all there trying to shoot down the peace dove of the regime. Another glance through the passport then my details are thoroughly noted into the system. First in fluent Arabic, then in slow shaky capital letters, “TOURIST”, two quick stamps reiterate his verdict. “Welcome to Syria”, he hands back my documents and gestures me towards the door.
Syria is a country being swept by a storm that refuses to quieten down and Damascus is the eye of the hurricane. With all tourists long gone the streets are left unnaturally quiet. From walls and rooftops all over town president Bashar Al-Assad and his father Hafez, the leader of the 1970 coup are scouring the city looking on from posters and pedestals.
Here in a city besieged by secret police and undercover agents the people would never discuss politics openly, instead they refer to old president Hafez as “The Lion King”, this turns Bashar into Simba and the Jackals are the ones you always fear might be listening in.
Inside the national museum everything is quiet, I’m walking the long empty halls of history cast in clay, iron, silver and gold. A lone guard sits on his footstool surrounded by 10.000 years of history, here are lives lived and lost, battles fought and civilizations crumbled.
Outside in the overgrown garden the last of the evening light throws long shadows of the ancient stone statues of the ones that were, among them sits one that still is. We talk, he tells me of his life, a good life, well at least it used to be. Things have changed recently.
“It’s because of the weather”, he says, looking me into the eyes. “This damn weather”
I’m walking through the streets of the old city observing the hopelessness, feeling the tension thick in the air. People look at me like I look at them, here we are all strangers. The act of raising my camera feels like a threat
to shatter this carefully constructed glass citadel so I tend not to.
A street sweeper stops me, he demands to look through my pictures, there is nothing incriminating there so he nods and lets me go, I hurry down a side street aware of his eyes following me.
Looking back I notice another shadow on my heels, I take a right then a left but he’s still there, our eyes meet and he stops, turns around and gets his phone out, I disappear. My heart is pounding, who was he? I slowly realize that I have become a part of it, this theatre of war.
“Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an estimated 1.4 million Chaldeans and Assyrians inhabited Iraq. In the decade that followed, hundreds of thousands of these Iraqi Christians either sought permanent refuge abroad or were internally displaced. During this turmoil, more than 60 churches were bombed, a Chaldean Catholic Archbishop was kidnapped and murdered, and an Iraqi Christian population of 1.4 million dwindled to fewer than 500,000—a result of the insurgency, subsequent unrest, and radically anti-Christian sentiment that ensued.
Today, targeted by ISIS for their Christian faith, Chaldeans and Assyrians are the victims of an unabashed ethnic-cleansing campaign. After seizing the northern city of Mosul in June, ISIS spray-painted the symbol for “Nazarene” on the homes of Christians. Families had 24 hours to convert to Islam, leave the city or face execution. Christians leaving the city had their possessions confiscated at security checkpoints and were forced to leave with nothing.
Most refugees fled to neighboring villages under the protection of Kurdish security forces, the Peshmerga. In response, ISIS shut off water supplies from Mosul to those villages. ISIS then continued its rapid advance into the villages outside of Mosul, displacing hundreds of thousands from their homes, converting churches to mosques, destroying homes and businesses, and leaving nothing to return to. An entire people have been cleansed from the region, guilty of nothing but their faith and ancient ethnicity.”
Monday the 14th of April, only a month and a bit before the European elections, every parliamentarian, civil servant, political advisor and journalist yet again travelled from Brussels to Strasbourg to vote on the final issues before the Parliament goes into political hibernation before the May election.
This is for many MEPs the last chance to get their political causes voted through and to put their fingerprints on EU policy, both locally and internationally. With a public that often have difficulty recognising their MEPs, this is also a good opportunity to make their mark in the domestic debate and get voters engaged in some of the most important European issues right now.
I travelled on the heels of the EU elite to try to catch a glimpse of life in Europe’s political navel.
Istanbul. The first time I was here I was 12. Memories of smog, crowds, kebab and an
incomprehensible wait for the telephone in the lobby to connect with my mum in Denmark are left behind and 19 years later it’s a different city. The calls for prayer and the scent of apple tobacco are still the same but now they float through streets occupied by men in cravats and women with and without hijabs lunching at trendy cafes next to designer shops and photo galleries showcasing the latest from the international art scene.
As the plane approaches the airport it is increasingly clear to me that this is a metropolis with a responsibility. A responsibility to keep two parts of the world together so they don’t drift too far from each other, but also a responsibility to keep them separate so we still can tell them from us and us them.
Bosphorus is the name of the strait that cuts through the giant. With a head in one part of the world and a body in another the strait is like an aorta that pumps life into the Turkish economy as well as to the oil market in Europe via tankers full of the black Russian gold.
Also for the individual, Bosphorus is a vein of life. All along the many kilometers of coastline, couples promenade while local fishermen sells their catch of the day. Tivoli’s offer entertainment while small ferries sail back and forth non-stop, working as needle and thread tying these two continents together.
While the empty bottles on the table in front of me goes from one to two, ships slowly drift by in the night. Across the strait thousands of lights waver and then disappear one by one as we pass midnight. A new day is coming and one thing is for sure. Istanbul is neither Asian nor European, Istanbul is its own.
The Dull Sound of Bombing
At the border I meet a photojournalist. He’s rough looking, missing a few teeth and wearing bulletproof gear. He looks at my thin leather jacket and then my blue eyes.
“You don’t have any combat gear? Anything warmer than that?” He asks me with a British accent. I don’t.
“Go with your gut-feeling mate, if you feel scared, turn away. And good luck!”
Right now I’m about to do exactly that. Just turn away and go back to where I came from. Someplace safe.
It’s a five kilometres walk through concrete and barbed wire from Turkey to Syria. Green grass grows on both sides of the road. There’s a mosque, a graveyard and then a few red signs warning trespassers of mines.
In the other end a big, newly printed banner welcomes me to a Free Syria. The empty frame where Bashar al-Assad used to greet visitors from now hangs empty. Someone is yet to fill this gap.
The new bureaucrats are young. Laughingly they throw passports back and forth between the desks and I get my stamp. Right across the border a mini version of a village has been erected by the use of white plastic tents donated by charities. Roughly 6000 people live here.
First stop is the Free Syrian Army’s media centre. Six men hang around, watching European football on a flat-screen television. My passport as well as press card are photocopied, we have tea, they ask me a few question, assign me a press officer and then we are off.
The camp is drenched. Even though there is only a limited number of tents for the many families, many of them stands empty due to flooding. It has been pouring for the last three days and today is the first with a bit of sun. All over clothes hangs to dry and small barriers of sand lies in front of each to try and keep some of the water out.
The refugees in this camp come mostly from the rural area around Aleppo. These people were not rich before the uprising and don’t have a passport. Without passport there’s no access to Turkey. The kids are in sandals and their clothes are drenched. Smilingly they run after me and throw me the V-sign every time I raise the camera. This is hard.
A few hours later the sun begins to set. I decide to head back to Turkey, hoping that re-entry won’t be a problem. As the sun throws its last long shadows and the Turkish half moon shows in the distance, a deep rolling thunder sends me on my way. Even though I’ve never heard real bombs go off before, there’s no doubt in my mind. This is real. This is war…
I spend the day organizing. First of all I need to change hotels. The one I’ve been staying in for the last two nights costs 90 Turkish Lira, about £30. My previous one was only £13. I’m here on my own budget so money matters every single step of the way.
People here are always offering to take me to Aleppo. I’m tempted but at a price of 300 American dollars each way for the 40km drive, it’s simply not possible for me. The steep price also indicates the level of danger. I met an Italian photographer that had been there. While I share a beer with Michele he tells me of his eight hours trip. The way that he grasps his head and looks down while he explains how a bomb landed just two blocks away says it all. It’s not worth going. From his eyes I can see that he is right.
After changing hotels I work for a few hours. The organizational side of things takes up a lot of my time and with the sun setting around four I have to be economical with the hours. When done I grab my camera and head out to locate a NGO run medical clinic for Syrians injured by the war.
On my way there I collect imagery not directly connected to the Syrian conflict. These pictures are meant for another project in my diary build on a scientific exploration of the so-called ‘Arab Felix’ that was sent by Danish king Frederick V in 1776 to explore the Arabian Peninsula.
I come across sheepherders and men blowing out the engines on their Yahama 4-gears. For these people this is just everyday life. But for me as a foreigner this is something absolutely stunning. It’s the power of looking, catching a glimpse and trying to comprehend.
A man in an impeccable suit stops on his motorbike. He talks to me in Turkish. I smile and say ‘hospital’ and he gestures me to get on. He speeds up and the wind in my face feels great.
We get to a three-storage house looking stranded. The wall is crumbling and Syrian number plates identify the cars parked outside. Inside is another world. Four small rooms are packed with hospital beds. In each bed lies someone wounded in one way or the other by the Syrian conflict. Some are FSA soldiers, some aren’t. Some are civilians and others are not. One thing that almost all of them share is that they’re just kids…
While I talk to patients that have lost arms and legs in the constant Aleppo bombing, a guy sees me and starts to yell. He’s angry and aggressive. I’m guessing that he is not Syrian, as he looks different from everybody else here. He shakes one of his crutches at me and I walk away.
“Don’t mind him, he’s just al-Qaeda” the other patients explains.
It’s clear that they don’t like him much. I ask if there are many al-Qaeda warriors in Syria and they tell me that there’s quite a few. Right now they are all fighting Bashar al-Assad, so it’s okay. But when the fighting is over and the winner has to be found they will become a problem.
“I’m Syrian and a Muslim and I am scared of them” one of the wounded tells me.
Arabia Felix p.1
“The depth of the Syrian tragedy is poignantly reflected in the accounts of its victims. Their harrowing experiences of survival detail grave human rights violations, war crimes and crimes against humanity. The destructive dynamics of the civil war not only have an impact on the civilian population but are also tearing apart the country’s complex social fabric, jeopardizing future generations and undermining peace and security in the entire region.”
Report of the independent international commission of inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic
United Nations General Assembly Human Rights Council Twenty-second session Agenda item 4 A/HRC/22/59
We tend to see the frame as the image itself, objectifying the photograph instead of looking through it to understand. Often our imagery is produced by highly educated “seers” as a product of a civilisation that have been taught to view the world in a singular way.
These Polaroid’s are shot in and around Syria in 2012/2013 and are all relating to the ongoing conflict. Each Polaroid have been exposed as well as composed correctly, but the exposed negative has never been removed from the photographic paper.
Right after the moment of exposure the Polaroid has been handed over to people present in the situation with a request for them to write on the back of the picture. No direction or explanation of what to write has been given, this has been left completely up to the individual.