In 2011 in the middle of the Arab Spring and the Egyptian uprising, I moved to Cairo, where I decided to work on stories outside the media’s spotlight. I documented the Coptic community of Egypt struggling with sectarian tensions which have intensified and deepened the divisions within the Egyptian society. Post-revolution Cairo was characterized by chaos, the city rife in crime with frequent eruptions of violence. In Cairo I was subjected to several violent attacks. I once found myself in the middle of an angry mob throwing stones at me and calling me a “journalist spy”, a moniker coined as a result of growing hostility towards my profession there. Another time a man threatened me with a knife as I was working on a story about organ trafficking in a Cairo neighborhood of Saida Zeynab. However, the most harrowing experience was an attack on the desert road leading out of Cairo towards Alexandria by a taxi driver who attempted to rape me inside his car. We struggled for some time and although I was severely beaten, I managed to escape the scene before the worst could happen.
After four years in Cairo, I relocated to Istanbul, where since 2015, I have been following the Syrian humanitarian crisis. On assignment for the Wall Street Journal last year, I followed Mr. Patricio Galvez, a Swedish Chilean poet and musician on his journey to rescue his seven orphaned grandchildren from the war zone. Mr. Galvez’s daughter Amanda joined ISIS and followed her husband, a notorious jihadist recruiter Michael Skramo into Syria. Both parents were killed in coalition strikes on ISIS territory, but their seven children survived and ended up in Al Hol, a refugee camp in North-Eastern Syria. Mr. Galvez embarked on a quest to rescue them and over the course of several months overcame many hurdles and managed to bring them back to safety in Sweden. I followed Mr. Galvez to Iraq and Syria and back to Sweden with the children, a success story for them, while over 28,000 children from 60 countries of the world still remain trapped in squalid refugee camps and detention centers of Syria. The world has branded them as children of ISIS, but they themselves have not committed any crimes. Yet they are being punished by association and their basic human rights are being violated as their governments refuse to take responsibility and repatriate them back to their respective countries of origin.
In October 2019 on assignment for the Wall Street Journal, I crossed into North Eastern Syria again in hopes of gaining access to the Al Hol refugee camp which houses over 70,000 people mostly family members of ISIS. On our second day there, President Trump announced on Twitter the recall of U.S. troops from the area, which green lighted the Turkish military incursion into Syria. Our local fixer abandoned us and we found ourselves stuck in Qamisli, the city, which fell under heavy bombardment of Turkish military the night we were there.
In December 2019 I went back to Syria and finally managed to gain access to Al Hol where I witnessed appalling living conditions. In the piercing cold wind, women and children ankle deep in mud mixed with sewage pushed carts full of cardboard to warm their flimsy tarpaulin tents. In an incident evoking the horrors of the Second World War, a Russian mother approached me and said: “Can they please just take my children, if they don’t want to take me”. There are no clinics or schools in Al Hol, children die of cold, disease and malnourishment. Grizzly murders are committed and corporal punishments administered, some hard-core ISIS ideologues imposed a self-rule where they issue death threats to those refusing to adhere to their strict code. Riots routinely break out and get subdued by gunfire, which once killed an infant. This was a humanitarian crisis, which the world has chosen to ignore. Rejected by their governments and societies, these women and children are in the state of misery, which perpetuates the narrative of victimhood upon which some of the most violent radical ideologies such as ISIS are based. Vulnerable as they are, and exposed daily to an environment of violence and radicalization, they will be exploited in the next call for war and pose greater security threat to the world.
While relating all these individual dilemmas around the world, often in forgotten communities, I hope to spotlight uncomfortable global issues such as social marginalization and post-war trauma. This collection of places and portraits of the disempowered and the displaced spans almost two decades and does not only show moments of unspoken anguish, but also expresses human dignity and resilience. In this sense my work reflects on humanistic values, such as those seen in the work of Anja Niedringhaus, who had dedicated her life to documenting the human struggle for survival with compassion and respect.