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What it was like to document the Syrian civil war

March 4, 2014, 11:14 pm | This story has an Influence Score of 1371

By riazhussain

War has been a universal phenomenon throughout human history. The Second World War was the deadliest war in human history because it caused the deaths of more than 60 million people. During these hostilities, the world witnessed the use of nuclear weapons for the first time in human history. The bombs instantly instilled terror among thousands of people in Japan. People all over the world saw images of deaths and destruction in Japan. Even today in the 21st century, our world is beset by wars. Every day we see sanguinary images and film footages of the victims of modern warfare and armed conflicts. These reports, images and footages have familiarized people worldwide with the horrors of modern, lethal wars. Consequently, there have emerged anti-war organizations and peace movements in different parts of the world.

Our awareness about the horrors of war owes a lot to the work of reporters, photographers and cameramen. These people remain in the background, risk their own lives and send us images and stories from unsafe points of combat zones. We take their work for granted but at times their lives are claimed by war. Over the years, hundreds of war correspondents, cameramen and photographers have died in the line of duty in the battle zones of Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and South America.  

Modern man appears to be in search of new paradigms of hope, progress and well-being. There are places where crumbling systems are resisting man’s struggle for freedom and prosperity. This results in protests and armed conflicts. Among the ongoing armed conflicts, the Syrian civil war is a recent phenomenon. The deadly conflict started in March 2011 and has claimed the lives of more than a hundred journalists and media activists. Madhar Amr Tayara, Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, Walid Bledi, Olivier Voisin and Rémi Ochlik of the IP3 Press photo agency are a few names of those who died while covering the urbane war in Syria. In this story, we are going to talk about a documentary photographer who went to cover the civil war in the Arab Republic of Syria.

Musa Chowdhury was born and raised in Manchester, England. He has worked for seven years as documentary photographer. He has been to so many places in the world, that in fact he can't recall them all. He became a photographer to tell in images the stories of those who are suffering silently in different parts of the world. He says, ‘It’s the plight of those who are being made to suffer, it’s the empathy side that draws me into telling their story’. He believes that through his job he is serving humanity. His job is hazardous but he must work on it despite the fact that it entails dangers because, as he says, ‘the injustices and the conflicts around the world would be unheard of if there were no people exposing the brutalities sand crimes’. This aim took him to Eastern Europe in Bosnia. There he focused on the mass massacre of Bosnians and mass graves that are still being unearthed.

In Bosnia, his focus was Srebrenica massacre or Srebrenica genocide. The massacre took place in 1995 when 8000 male Bosniaks were put to death in the town of Srebrenica. This massacre is regarded as one of the worst crimes in the history of Europe. The perpetrators spared women but killed their sons, brothers and husbands. 

Recently, he went to Syria where he had a chance to be on the front-line and witness Syrian people’s fight for freedom.

I started my interview by asking him about the problems of Syrian people in the civil war in their country. He said, ‘I don’t know where to start... freedom of speech or expression, freedom of movement, the violations of basic human rights, living a life with no clear direction of the future and no education for your child and food shortages... Life is not easy, time is frozen. The fabric of life has been eroded by this war imposed on the people... Sniper fire, tank shelling, barrel bombs dropping from the sky above – there is fear all around. The greatest fear is not being able to see your loved ones - any moment.   

He continued, 'The occasional look of innocence on a child’s face takes way the attention for a few minutes – however reality is still there - you know you are surrounded by the fear of death and misery around you’.

Talking about his photographs of Syrian children, he said, ‘These are the innocent faces of this conflict - in most cases ignored - by capturing these faces I wanted these pictures to tell a story to the viewer - a story of innocence... a message to the world - a message to the opposition fighters, a message to the government and governments around the world...’

Bullets and bombs cannot differentiate between innocent children, armed people, freedom fighters and observers from the media. Capturing the life of Syrian people amid heavy street fighting was not an easy job. He remembers, ‘I have had bullets fly over my head and tank shells landing nearby me’. He was able to get close to the action with the help of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and on his very first day he witnessed the nightmarish war taking place outside the houses.

He remembers, ‘On my first night, I was documenting the recovering of the body of an FSA comrade who had lost his life in a battle - the FSA found it incredibly difficult to recover the body for weeks – the neighbourhood had been burnt. In the cover of night the fighters made an attempt, which was marred with sniper fire and helicopter gunship fire. The FSA were successful in the attempt, however, we couldn’t move from the safe house due to constant bombardment around us (for the next few days) we had no choice but to stay in the safe house with an unforgettable putrid odour of a decaying body for days... these moments are still etched on my mind’.

He lived in those conditions of urban warfare for more than a month. When you are amid bombs and bullets, time appears to stand still. This is what Musa felt when he was in Syria. He says, ‘Every second in Syria is like one year. At times - time never moves!’. From these words of our interviewee, we can very well imagine the plight of the Syrian people, who appear to be tired of this war which is being fought outside their own houses for the last two years. 

The youths that were supposed to be spending time in pursuit of academic and professional excellence have been forced by circumstances to arm themselves with guns, AK-47 and RPGs and go to streets to defend their rights and lives.  

Houses, shops and other buildings are empty and deserted. Their occupants have fled away to neighbouring countries to save the lives of their children. When will they return to these buildings? The towns look like haunted places. 

According to UN statistics, 70,000 people have died and millions of people have been displaced in this war alone. Around 300,000 civilians have taken refuge in the neighboring counties of Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Our photographer was moved to see the faces of refugees fleeing away, but he did not let it overcome his professionalism. He says, ‘I was overwhelmed by a feeling of shear sadness. The mass exodus of refugees fleeing into neighbouring countries like Turkey and Jordan. It's the eyes and the innocent faces that really capture your feelings. Seeing the despair in the faces of the people in Syria – breaks your heart – as a journalist you are there for a reason and it’s imperative to control you feelings’. Being a professional photographer, Musa was able to control his emotions, but when we look at his work, some of us might not have been able to control ours, should we have been in his position.

His images show that he knows the art of capturing sorrow and suffering. He believes that ‘all injustices should be exposed and those responsible should be brought to account’. His photographic collection of the Syrian civil war was a milestone for him as a documentary photographer. It was in line with his aim of focusing on ‘human struggle in the face of adversity’. But, his professionalism and concerns for human suffering do not let him rest. In pursuit of this goal, he says that there are still miles to go before he can sleep.

We do not know how long the civil war is going to rage in Syria, which is known as the land of friendly people and lost civilizations. What will the impact of this warfare be on women, children, the youth, the economy of the country and the posterity ? How many more buildings are to become haunted places? How many more heads are going to get drenched in blood before life in this beautiful land sees days of peace and happiness?  

Perhaps, it is too early to answer these and other such questions. But life does not thrive on wars. It thrives when hearts are won through kindness and care. With wars people can win lands but not affection and benevolence. By bringing tanks on the roads and the streets, they may frighten the populace and prolong their hold onto power. But when people of a nation are desperate, even tanks may not help the crumbling dynasties. 

The conquered lands soon change hands but hearts conquered with kindness never change hands. This is what our interviewee believes in. He holds that 'We are all one. We are all humans; love and respect are great gifts. In essence there is no difference in the human race. We are surrounded by boundless beauty and countless gifts. We just need to reach out with our hearts'.

Our documentary photographer has spent time in the Syrian cities of Homs and Aleppo and was fortunateley able to return unscathed from the war front. But there are still hundreds of journalists, photographers and cameramen who are working in Homs, Aleppo, Damascus, Daraa, Deir ez-Zor, Idlib, Latakia and other conflict-ridden areas of Syria. They are covering the ongoing armed conflict as well as communicating to us the plight, suffering and needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. In short, they are connecting the war-torn country to the rest of the world. Their own lives are at risk unless powerful groups learn to exercise restraint in the heat of war. 

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