Photographers' Blog

Prayers during wartime

Midyat, Turkey

By Umit Bektas

Sunday mass has just begun in Mort Shmuni Syriac Orthodox Church. It is seven o’clock in the morning and the streets of Midyat, where the majority of the population is Muslim Kurdish, are empty.

But despite the calm outside, the historical church is overcrowded with a community of three hundred people, mostly children. Candles are lit, hymns are sung and prayers are made.

The reason that the mass is so crowded today is not because it is the festival of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple. It is because for over two years now, Syriac Christian families escaping the bloody war in Syria just across the border have been joining the congregation, adding to the Turkish Christian citizens of Midyat.

Since then, Sunday masses have become more crowded, more enthusiastic.

Ibrahim (not his real name) is one of those who pray and sing hymns along with his family at Sunday mass. He is a 45-year-old Syrian citizen, a carpenter.

For eight months, Ibrahim has been living with his wife and seven children in Midyat, in Turkey’s southeastern Mardin Province. The family has been staying in a refugee camp established by the Turkish authorities.

From Aleppo to no man’s land

Miratovac, Serbia

By Marko Djuirca

I had been thinking how cold it was for this time of year to need both my hoodie and my jacket. A cold, strong wind blew over the hills of no-man’s land separating Serbia from Macedonia. I stood quietly in total darkness for an hour or so until the border patrol officer, looking through his thermal camera, said: “Here they are, I think there must be 40 of them!”

Every year, the Serbian border police catches more than 10,000 migrants from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, who are trying to reach Serbia illegally. They come from Turkey, through Greece to Macedonia and Serbia before they reach Hungary and with it, the borderless Schengen travel zone.

When I decided to follow this story, I had no idea how strong an impact it would leave on me.

Neither Croat, nor Serb

Knin, Croatia

By Antonio Bronic

Ethnic conflict shook Croatia to the core during the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Today, both Serbs and Croats in the country still bear the scars – something clearly visible if you visit the areas around the southern town of Knin. Before the war broke out, most of Knin’s citizens were Serbs. When Croatia declared independence in 1991, Serbs who wanted to remain part of Yugoslavia staged a bloody rebellion, and Knin became their stronghold. The town was recaptured by the Croatian army in 1995 and the Serb population fled in the thousands, leaving behind their homes, most of which were soon torched or blown up by the Croats.

After the war ended, some of the Serbs returned and Croatian authorities promised they would receive equal assistance in rebuilding their damaged properties. But 18 years after the conflict, many are still making do with basic or temporary living arrangements. Croatia, preparing to join the European Union on July 1, has told the EU that houses for returning refugees would be constructed. I thought I would go and investigate the situation, and after a bit of research and a few phone calls, I managed to find people to talk to both in Knin and the surrounding areas.

Among them, I found Croatian Serbs whose houses are still in ruins, who are struggling to make ends meet, and who have survived on welfare since their return. One of them is Sava Knezevic, who has been living in a barn next to his destroyed home for 17 years now, and ekes out a meagre living by collecting and selling discarded plastic bottles. Instead of a toilet he uses bushes around the back, he has one electric socket in the barn, a small bed and a wood burning stove – and these are all of his possessions.

Cross-country protest

By Thomas Peter

“It feels good to walk in nature after so many months of boredom in the Immigration Holding Centre,” said Sallisou as we walked along a poplar-lined alley in the sleepy hinterland of Potsdam-Mittelmark, a rural county just outside the German capital of Berlin. Two weeks earlier, the smiling man from Niger had joined a 600 km (372 miles) foot march of refugees. With every county border they crossed, they were breaking a state order that restricts their movement to a territory around their camp. At present, Sallisou was eagerly filming the procession of refugees with a small video camera.

“Since I have been on this march, my days have a purpose again. There is so much to organize and we do it ourselves. We work as a team. Being on the move feels like I have a home again,” Salissou said.

For these people whose stories of displacement and rejection are as varied as the places they come from, ‘home’ means self-determination, the feeling of being needed and the knowledge that they are heading for some sort of reachable goal, all of which they have not had since they fled their countries.

A river out of Syria

By Osman Orsal

It was early on Wednesday morning when I arrived at Hacipasa, a village just across the border from Syria in Turkey’s southern Hatay province. Set among rolling hills lined with olive trees, the village sits right across from the Syrian town of Azmarin, where heavy clashes had been taking place between Syrian government forces and rebels. The army had been shelling Azmarin and I was taking pictures of the shells landing in and around the town which sent plumes of dust and smoke rising above the town.

As the fighting intensified throughout the morning, villagers from Hacipasa told me Syrians were starting to flee across the Orontes river in the valley below me, some of them wounded. The river forms a natural frontier between Turkey and Syria along this part of the border.

Grabbing my cameras, I jumped into the car with a Reuters reporter and drove quickly down the narrow dirt road to the river to where the refugees were. As we neared the river the sound of the shelling became louder and louder. We could not drive our car right up to the river as villagers from Hacipasa had already moved dozens of cars and minibuses down the narrow track to help ferry the people away.

Voices of Myanmar refugees

By Damir Sagolj

“It was raining for days before she came, then rain stopped. She has super powers,” Poe Suter Toe, an ethnic Karen refugee said. Indeed, the monsoon rain started again the moment Aung San Suu Kyi left Mae La, the biggest refugee camp at the Thailand-Myanmar border. Its 50,000 people, refugees from all across the country, better known as Burma, remain behind razor wire surrounding the camp in mountains.

A day after, I crossed inside the camp one more time to ask people about Mother Suu’s visit. What do they think about it? Can she change the country? Can she help them?

SLIDESHOW: VOICES OF MYANMAR REFUGEES

As expected, I heard many different opinions; from no hope to big hope, from “she is my inspiration” to “she can’t do anything”, from fears of another “failed revolution” to excitement that the misery of these poor people could be coming to its end. Many were just being very cautious about their expectations.

“We just want to go home”

By Joe Penney

By the time the aid workers arrive at Mbera refugee camp at 7am after crisscrossing a 15 km (9 mile) trail through sand dunes from the adjacent town in a convoy of white Land Cruisers, Malian refugee and mother Zeinab Mint Hama has already been up for at least an hour.

As she did back home in Lere, Mali, Zeinab starts her days early to avoid the blazing midday Saharan sun, with temperature reaching up to 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). She and the 64,000 other Malians who have fled violence in their home country to settle temporarily at Mbera, a United Nations-run camp about 40 km (25 m) from the Malian border in neighboring Mauritania, are persevering to establish a sense of normalcy to their new lives.

SLIDESHOW: MALI REFUGEES

Mbera itself functions like a fairly normal Saharan city: there are schools, a butcher, hairdressers, lots of tea and even the odd electric guitar. Traditionally nomadic peoples, many of the Tuaregs and Berabiche Arab tribes who left Mali for Mbera are accustomed to a life of minimal material comfort and establishing their homes under tents built from available materials. But events in Mali have provided a new challenge: political instability and violence.

Dreams of their Syrian homes

By Umit Bektas

Only a half hour’s walk from the hundreds of tents lined up in the camp would take them to the banks of the Orontes River, the natural boundary between Turkey and Syria. When they cross the river they would be back in the land where they were born and grew up, among the people speaking the same language – their homeland. From the border it is only a short journey to their town or village and their own homes. Yes, the distance is short but what keeps children away from their homes is not always distance. Sometimes it is politics and the conflicts born of politics. And it is precisely this strife that forces the children to live a life in tents in bleak territory. There are reasons behind all conflicts, they have their antagonists, those in the right and those in the wrong, the strong and the weak. Who is right and who is wrong may change according to everyone’s way of thinking but there can be no doubt that the most innocent and the most vulnerable victims of all conflicts are the children.

A small number of the millions of displaced children who have fled fighting around the world are the Syrian children who have found refuge at the Boynuyogun refugee camp in Turkey’s southern Antakya province. Hundreds of them now live with their families in the identical tents pitched in the camp. The Turkish administrators of the camp provide food, clothing, shelter and medical care for the refugees. An important part of life which these children miss now that they are away from home is of course their schools. Because no one can predict how long they will have to stay in this camp, Arabic-speaking Turkish teachers have been assigned to conduct classes for them. These teachers have grouped the children into age groups and teach them in tents, turned into makeshift classrooms.

Certainly the education Syrian children receive here is inadequate compared to their regular schools but it is obviously a much better alternative to idleness and at least helps further their learning. New camps are under construction in the same region and school buildings are part of their planned infrastructure, evidence of the importance attached to the continued schooling of these children.

From the Quake to the Cup

By Mariana Bazo

Nearly 300 Haitians are stuck in Inapari, a tiny Peruvian village on the border with Brazil. They are victims of the 2010 earthquake in their country and traveled weeks chasing their dream of simply getting a job. They believe that in Brazil the upcoming World Cup is creating great opportunities.

Some 3,000 kilometers after leaving home, they reached the Brazilian border only to find it shut to them, closed to stop the wave of their compatriots that began to arrive after the disaster.

They wait in the middle of the jungle and understand little. They’ve bet everything on this chance, selling or just abandoning all their belongings back home to make it this far. They now have nothing in Haiti and can’t reach their destination, nor can they return. They even asked me why they’re not allowed to cross the border, assuring that they are good workers and are willing to work hard to live better.

Circle of life in world’s largest refugee camp

By Jonathan Ernst

I arrived in Dadaab, Kenya, well after the story broke.

It is the world’s largest refugee camp with a population of over 400,000, almost exclusively Somali, refugees. Its originally capacity was only for 90,000. Dadaab became front-page news this summer as the population spiked as a wave of “New Arrivals” crowded into the camps at a rate of more than 1,500 people per day as they fled the famine in their home country.

It’s a huge place, and getting around even requires a commute. Convoys roll from the main aid compounds only at certain hours for security reasons. Aid workers talk about how safe and peaceful it has been over the first 20 years, but the internal politics and demographics of the camp have changed dramatically in the past three or so years, as new arrivals outnumber the original shelter-seekers.

When I got there, the crush of new arrivals was still being processed, but the crush of international media had already left town. One of my first nights in the camps, at the bar in the UN compound, I met the crew who operated the satellite television transmissions for networks around the world whenever they wanted to “go live” from Dadaab. They had just rotated in and were prepared to be there as long as one month. But they left after just four days, as there was no longer any demand for them. Anderson Cooper of CNN was one of the last big names to pass through, and he had left a week or so before.