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Syria in Ruins

In 2009 I visited Syria. I did not know what to expect of one of the Axis of Evil states but what I found was the most friendly people, an organised and flourishing society, with religious tolerance to the numerous different religions to be found, a place where history seeped out of the crevices. I don’t doubt that for some people Syria was a despicable state but on an every day level it was rich and fascinating. Now all that has gone, the hotel I stayed in Aleppo with the unpaid bill by Lawrence of Arabia on display, gone; the freedom to walk almost anywhere at any time of day or night, gone. The security to feel safe, gone. It makes me weep and these images from The Atlantic terrify me, what has happened to the people I met and became friends with, the people I drank tea with and watched Champions League football in sport cafes. The small bakeries on the streets, the vendors around the mosque in the centre of Damascus…..

While much of the world’s attention focuses on a possible war with North Korea, the war currently being fought in Syria grinds on. March of 2013 was a month of grim milestones in Syria. It marked two years since the start of hostilities; the number of war refugees passed one million; and it was was the bloodiest month to date, with more than 6,000 people killed. Neither the pro-Assad forces, nor the group of rebels opposing them have gained much ground recently, and little or no progress has been made by international agencies to halt the bloodshed. The following photographs come from across Syria, taken over the past six weeks, showing just some of the devastation in Aleppo, Deir al-Zor, Homs, Deraa, Idlib, and Damascus

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Sami (center) speaks with his children in an underground Roman tomb which he uses with his family as shelter from Syrian government forces, at Jabal al-Zaweya, in Idlib province, on February 28, 2013. The ancient sites are built of thick stone that has already withstood centuries, and are often located in strategic locations overlooking towns and roads. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

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Damaged buildings in Jouret al-Shayah, Homs, Syria, on February 2, 2013. (Reuters/Yazen Homsy)

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A Syrian woman sits on the ruins of her house, which was destroyed in an airstrike by government warplanes a few days earlier, killing 11 members of her family, in the neighborhood of Ansari, Aleppo, on February 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Abdullah al-Yassin)

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A resident inspects the damages at an ancient Souk caused by what activists said was shelling by forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Deir al-Zor, on March 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

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A boy takes a picture of his friend who gestures from the top of a damaged building in Deir al-Zor, on April 4, 2013.(Reuters/Khalil Ashawi)

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People inspect damaged areas in Deir al-Zor, on March 3, 2013. (Reuters/Khalil Ashawi)

See all the images in this gallery here

From our man (still) in Damascus, John Wreford words and pictures

Our great friend John Wreford is sticking it out in Damascus for the time being, it is his home and has been for 10 years. To many his reluctance to leave would seem to be verging on the insane but John is a man of great fortitude. When I had the chance to travel with him through Syria in 2009 I found that everywhere we went he was greeted like a brother. People would stop him in the streets to say hello and embrace him, hotels we stayed at refused to take payment treating him like family, it didn’t seem to matter where we were there was someone who knew him. I guess that is why he is still there. This piece he has written for Roads and Kingdoms, here are the opening passages…

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straight-street-605x192All photos by John Wreford

 

Damascenes have long told themselves that their city is where all journeys, all religions and all civilisations begin and end. We who live there now also know that Damascus will be where the final battle for control of Syria will be fought.

Rebel forces are gathered just a few kilometers from the stone walls of the Old City, and inside the walls for almost a year now we have lived with the terrifying sounds of war, the scream of fighter jets, gun battles raging and shells flying overhead. War on our doorstep.

For me the only journeys I ever take these days are around the souks and alleyways of my neighborhood. On these walks I am not only trying to get a sense of the situation, but also a bit of the reassurance that comes from seeing the market busy with shoppers and children heading off to school. I drop in on friends and get updates on the crisis. Often it’s only gossip and rumor, but there are few other reliable sources of information. I check to see what food is in the market and at what price, as there have been days when fresh food and bread have been scarce. Those are the things on my mind as I slam the heavy metal door of my house and head out into the warren of passageways tucked in a corner of the Old City between the ancient gates of Bab Touma and Bab Salam.

Outside my door all is quiet. The street cleaner has collected the rubbish and the cats have retired for a morning nap in the shade of satellite dishes on the wonky roofs. A hose pipe peeks out from behind a door and a woman sprays water over the dusty cobbles. The alley here is no wider than an arm’s length. It doglegs a couple of times, ambles down a few stone steps and underneath an archway, past a small local mosque with a pretty courtyard dotted with potted plants. Despite most of the neighborhood being Muslim, few seem to visit this Mosque. Another couple of steps and another arch and then I see the first sign that life here is not as it used to be: there’s a checkpoint, not military but civilian…..MORE

 

John Wreford our man in Damascus

John is a great friend who is trying to stay living in Damascus, as a photographer he finds it difficult to take his camera out at the moment, arrest and or death seem to great a penalty to pay. His occasional musings in words rather than pictures must suffice. This picture is of John from calmer times

©Keith Barnes

Here are John’s words from his recent return to Damascus from Beirut

Damascus for me has always had the amazing ability to raise my mood, if for whatever reason I have fallen out of bed on the wrong side and started the day in a grumpy mood it hardly ever lasted before some quirk of Damascene life made everything chipper again, I remember a while ago waking to find the electricity cut and just as I was about to make coffee I ran out of gas, at that time I lived in a modern apartment over the road from the presidential office but it felt more like the third world, I went out in search of the gas man but instead headed for a coffee shop downtown, the smell of Jasmine and the croaking of frogs along the drizzle of a river were not quite enough to counter the effects of being deprived of early morning coffee but as I passed a police guard box outside an embassy building I couldn’t keep the smile from spreading across my face, the two young policemen were fast asleep and entwined like satisfied lovers, a short walk later I passed a hairdressing salon that was having its windows cleaned, the signage in English was advertising Hair Extensions, Wigs and Beards and for some reason tickled my fancy enough to make me laugh, I found a café enjoyed my fix and headed home, not to far from home I met the truck with the gas, I stopped him and asked if he would come and change the bottle, typically he asked who’s house rather than the actual address, this I knew was going to be a test of my Arabic but persevered with directions, he knew the area, he knew the street, he knew the chicken shop a few doors down and so when I said it was the black door he then asked was it the black door with the step or the one without, it was with and the gas was on its way, I have no idea what all the fuss was about, I had a lovely couple of hours.

Damascus still has the ability to surprise me but lately its more likely to change an otherwise pleasant mood into a depressing one, after a few days of much needed rain I was out enjoying the winter sun, walking back from town through Al Hamadiyya souk, the market was busy, busier than normal it occurred to me, I exited the souk and children were chasing the pigeons in the square, I rounded the mosque and instead of heading towards Norfra café as I would normally I decided to buy some dried Figs in souk Bouzariya, after which I walked along the narrow alleyway behind the Azam Palace, I remember looking up at a healthy bush of Jasmine tumbling down over a beautiful Arabic house, a little further along I paused to smile at how all the Arabic graffiti had been painted over and only the English word “Freedom” was left legible and it was at exactly this point that a mortar fizzed over my head and exploded in the next street, the walls of the alley vibrated causing bits of concrete to fall, it seemed to me at the time the target must have been the Umayyad mosque but I couldn’t tell, the next alley directly opposite the Jesus Minaret where some say Jesus will descend on Judgment Day- was a hive of panic with a couple of soldiers running around, maybe it was Judgment Day, whoever in their infinite wisdom decided to fire that mortar should and sooner or later will be judged, I went home not so much scared by what had happened but angry and confused.

At home and sitting on my roof only a couple of hours later I watched a fighter jet pounding the suburbs a few kilometres away, the fairy lights of its payload glowing in the evening sky, a mother and her three children were on a neighbouring roof were also watching, then automatic gunfire echoed over the rooftops, it was close but only when I heard bullets ricochet of the satellite dishes did we all scuttle downstairs, I turned on the TV to watch the news, I saw familiar roof tops and an evening sky, I saw the fairly lights and the screaming jet, it wasn’t Damascus though it was Gaza, Syria didn’t make the news today.

You can see John’s pictures here

Pictures of the Week: October 5, 2012

From the always excellent photo blog at The Denver Post, 20 images to make you think and to marvel at the talent of the photographers, go here to see the whole series

An Afghan refugee girl stands next to her family’s sheep in a field next to a slum area on the outskirts of Islamabad, Pakistan, Monday, Oct. 1, 2012. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Christian pilgrims take part in a group baptism in the waters of the Jordan River on October 3, 2012 at Yardenit in northern Israel. An estimated 100,000 Christian worshippers make their pilgrimage to the Holy Land each year and one of their most sacred rituals is being immersed in the biblical river where, according to Christian beliefs, Jesus Christ was baptised by John the Baptist. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Smoke rises over Saif Al Dawla district in Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012. The U.N.’s deputy secretary-general says U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon made a strong appeal to Syria’s foreign minister to stop using heavy weapons against civilians and reduce the violence that is killing 100 to 200 people every day.(AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

A Syrian man cries outside the Dar El Shifa hospital in Aleppo, Syria after his daughter was injured during a Syrian Air Force strike over a school where hundreds of refugees had taken shelter Thursday, Oct. 4, 2012. The border violence between Turkey and Syria has added a dangerous new dimension to Syria’s civil war, dragging Syria’s neighbors deeper into a conflict that activists say has already killed 30,000 people since an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March 2011. (AP Photo/ Manu Brabo)

See the rest here

Damascus – life interrupted – Our Man In Damascus – John Wreford

Our great friend John Wreford is still in his house in the old city in Damascus, he no longer feels safe enough to walk the streets with his camera but he writes for Your Middle East, here is his latest article

The universal image of washing  © John Wreford

The image of washing blowing in the breeze is as universal an image as you will find anywhere in the world, an image of the everyday, domesticity, perhaps an indication of the less well off or working class, a sign of daily life, of family, his overalls, the kids school uniform.

Syria is not so different, in the villages you see the colours flapping in the wind although not so much in the city, maybe on the roof or in the courtyard but more often than not hanging on the balcony hidden from view by a curtain, modesty dictates underwear is not supposed to be on public display. I am not sure why the subject gets my attention other than my natural inquisitiveness of the human condition, I like to photograph people, I like to understand how they live, for sure it’s not a fetish, the souk of al Hamadiyya would surely satisfy that with its gaudy penchant for titillation, risqué lingerie juxtaposed alongside hijab.

Wandering the streets of Damascus without my camera doesn’t stop my eye from being drawn to the subjects that interest me most: its people and their lives. They are going about their business as best they can, some would have us believe as normal, well for the most part shop and office are open and the streets are busy but we all know it’s not normal and that in fact it’s quite terrible, on a good day the sound of the traffic and its incessant honking will drown out the sound of the helicopter gunships or the shelling in the suburbs, the checkpoints tend to fade away in many places during the day, we all know terrorists only come out after dark, the devil though is said to be in the details and it’s the washing that catches my eye. READ MORE HERE

John wrote an earlier diary piece for the Your Middle East

Syrian security forces taking position in the Al-Midan district of Damascus on July 18
An image grab taken from Syrian TV shows Syrian security forces taking position during armed clashes with gunmen who the TV called “terrorists” (unseen) in the Al-Midan district of Damascus on July 18. For the first time in decades, the eve of Ramadan in Syria’s capital is overshadowed by fear. Panic has engulfed the city amid unprecedented combat after a bombing killed three top officials. © AFP/SYRIAN TV/File

A warm summer evening sitting in a central Damascus restaurant overlooking the city, the mountain of Qasyun lit like a Christmas tree, we were under no illusion all was well in Syria. But here in the capital life went on almost as usual. We discussed how things the last week or so had calmed down, then for a moment we paused for thought, the calm before the storm perhaps.

No more than a few days later the storm well and truly blew into town. For months, the opposition and regime had been battling each other in the outer suburbs of Damascus. The sounds of shelling and artillery echoed across the city, peaceful protestors were still coming out in large numbers, more and more clashes could be heard, but by and large everything tended to take place in certain areas.

It was pretty well known that the Free Syrian Army had been moving into Damascus and was encamped in the more militant neighbourhoods such as Midan and Kfra Souseh. But many of us felt able to go about life as usual despite knowing that sooner or later things would change. From Sunday we felt that change. The war had been on the doorstep but was now passing over the threshold, more explosions, more shooting, the awful sounds moving closer and closer, the continuous drone of helicopters that had become a regular feature over recent weeks.

Where I live in the Old City between Bab Touma and Bab Salam, ancient houses in a warren of alleyways, things were calm, children playing in the streets and many preparing for Ramadan. I would sit on my roof early morning and in the evening, able to get more of a fix on where the sounds of gunfire may be coming from. I can see very little, four large satellite dishes prostrated toward Mecca have seen to that. Monday through Tuesday the fighting became more intense, my house shook as a helicopter was shot down in Qaboun and at one point a couple of stray bullets whizzed through the air above my head, the sound like an email being despatched from an iPhone. The explosions and gunfire continued all through the night. READ MORE HERE

If we believed in a god, and let’s face it the evidence is all to the contrary, we would pray for John’s safety, as it is we trust in his good sense and innate humanity, he is in our thoughts, if you want to see more of his work have a look here

Photo essay: The soon to be lost city in Anatolia by John Wreford

It is nice to know that our man in Damascus, John Wreford is still able to produce work and get it out to his clients. Recent conversations with John have highlighted the desperate problems of Syria and the restrictions on movement have meant his opportunity to photograph in Syria during these very dangerous times have been limited so this photo essay of his from Turkey is welcome.

“God spoke to Noah commanding him to save his family, build an Ark and take the animals – the flood was coming, Earth needed to be cleansed. The well-known story is related in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and finding the Ark and proving the story true an eternal quest.

Noah reputedly hailed from Mesopotamia, and the last resting place of the Ark is still thought to be in the region of Ararat in Turkish Anatolia, so it’s with some irony that a few hundred kilometres to the south all the talk is of impending flood waters that will drown towns and villages along the Tigris basin, the ancient town of Hasankeyf being the most prominent.

“This time the Turkish government is the one preparing to open the floodgates; the southeast Anatolian project (GAP) is an ambitious plan to develop the infrastructure of the impoverished region utilizing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers via a series of dams and hydroelectric plants. Needless to say there has to be casualties and it looks like Hasankeyf is going down with all its treasure”……..MORE

© John Wreford

Update from my little corner in the Old City of Damascus

My great friend John Wreford lives in Damascus, he could have left but he is still there, this is a recent update from him

Friday in the Old City was completely deserted, hardly a shop open, the only people about were local residents, generally things were calmer around most of the city, the rubbish that had not been collected for a couple of days and was beginning to reek was being cleared, Raslan, Osama, and Hasan the kids in my alley were using wheelbarrows to cart it off elsewhere, as night fell there were still echoes of what was going on further away, a gun battle that sounded quite close only lasted a few minutes then very little.

Around 2.30 Am I heard a sound that pleased me more than I can say, a sound that in previous years had annoyed the hell out of me, the banging drum of Abu Tableh, the human alarm clock, letting everyone know it was time to prepare the pre-dawn meal before a long day of fasting, Ramadan has arrived, the children in my alley all ran out to greet him, nothing is normal anymore in Damascus but Syrians are resilient and determined, they will persevere and they overcome this terrible situation.

Ramadan Kareem

Stay safe John.

John Wreford Photographer Damascus

In the 30 years that The Photographers Workshop has existed we have been lucky enough to meet many wonderful photographers, skillful, artistic professional photographers. For perhaps more than 20 years John Wreford has been a friend and colleague whose work we have greatly admired. In the recent times he has been based in Damascus and lives there with a house in the old city. Using this as a base he has traveled widely through the middle east and taken the opportunity to work for a number of the worlds great magazines and newspapers and to add to his stock of intelligent intimate, mature images. He is a man with great vision and empathy for his subjects. Do go and have a look at his excellent site here is the link

Galatasaray Football fans celebrate winning the Turksih domestic league, Galata Istanbul. ©John Wreford

Samia a Turkish transgender sex worker at home in Istanbul ©John Wreford

A Turkish boy plays on an abandoned car in the run down Fener neighborhood of Istanbul. ©John Wreford

The Maidens Tower at sunset, Uskudar on the Asian shore of Istanbul. ©John Wreford

Young Turkish Couple, Taksim Istanbul ©John Wreford

Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, National hero regarded as founder of modern Turkey ©John Wreford

Do go and have a look at the rest of his pictures here

Crisis in Syria: Photography of an uprising

Another really great set of pictures collected by The Denver Post for their pblog series.

I was very pleased to see my friend and photographer John Wreford recently returned from Damascus. He lives there, has for a number of years, knows the country well, so his understanding of what was happening offered another perspective. The warm, friendly, generous Syrian people are suffering, dying and the world stands by and does nothing.

“(AP) Fighting between forces loyal to President Bashar Assad and members of the Free Syrian Army continue in Syria. The U.N. estimates that Syria’s crackdown has killed more than 7,500 people so far. The killings add to the pressure on U.N. Security Council members who are meeting to decide what to do next to stop the violence. The international community’s current effort—a peacemaking mission by Annan—is faltering, with both the Syrian government and the opposition refusing to talk to one another.”

Syria launched a long-anticipated assault to crush the opposition in the rebellious north, bombarding its main city with tank shells from all sides and clashing with rebel fighters struggling to hold back an invasion.

President Bashar Assad rejected any immediate negotiations with the opposition, striking a further blow to already staggering international efforts for talks to end the conflict. Assad told U.N. envoy Kofi Annan that a political solution is impossible as long as “terrorist groups” threaten the country.

Photos: Crisis in Syria

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Ahmed, center, mourns his father Abdulaziz Abu Ahmed Khrer, who was killed by a Syrian Army sniper, during his funeral in Idlib, north Syria, Thursday, March 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd) #

Photos: Crisis in Syria

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Members of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib Prvoince, Syria, February, 2012. The Free Syrian ArmyŐs strength lies inside the towns. The regular Syrian Army, which has proved to be unreliable and is already stretched thin, is reluctant to storm the towns and consolidate control. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

Photos: Crisis in Syria

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Armed only with rifles and homemade bombs, members of the Free Syrian Army attack a column of Syrian Army Tanks in Saraqib, in Idlib Province, Syria, Feb. 15, 2012. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

Photos: Crisis in Syria

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A fighter with the Free Syrian Army, the armed opposition group made up largely of defectors from the Syrian military, attacks a column of Syrian Army Tanks in Saraqib, in Idlib Province, Syria, Feb. 15, 2012. The armed opposition in Syria is led by the underequipped Free Syrian Army. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

SEE MORE HERE

Rémi Ochlik

I was in Syria in 2009, I was struck by how really friendly everyone was, it is so sad what is happening there now. That sadness is not confined to the courageous Syrian people but also to the journalists who cover the unfolding ruthlessness of the regime.

From the BJP by Olivier Laurent

“Rémi Ochlik was killed in Homs, Syria on 22 February. Friends and colleagues tell BJP what made the young photographer one of a kind – “a man who knew better than take unnecessary risks…..When Paris Match asked Rémi Ochlik and writer Alfred de Montesquiou to leave Syria as their security became an issue, the 28-year-old freelance photographer looked at his photos. “He wasn’t happy,” writes de Montesquiou. “He wanted better. He wanted images that truly showed the tragedy and the violence being waged against the Syrian people.” But before going back on his own, using a network of fixers and militants, Ochlik took an insurance policy. “He knew better than going into Syria on his own without preparing for all eventualities,” says photographer Olivier Laban-Mattei, one of Ochlik close friends and co-workers. “He knew what he was doing.”….MORE

Here is a link to an article in The Guardian that has a selection of Rémi Ochlik’s images