Friday, November 22, 2013

Syria's children in the crosshairs

 Rama, 15, quadriplegic. Reyhanli, Turkey.

Rama Korabi, 15, was walking to her elder sister's home in the Idlib town of Ariha, Syria, on July 9, 2012. A sniper shot her through the neck. She awoke in the Ariha hospital, where she had been taken immediately after the shooting. The bullet was removed, and she was transported to Aleppo to undergo an operation to remove bone fragments. Her injury had rendered her quadriplegic--unable to move her legs, arms, and torso, and unable to walk.

(To learn more about Rama's hometown, read a recent report here about the long siege of Ariha, a key settlement along an important Syrian government resupply route. By McClatchy's Roy Gutman.)

Even in societies not experiencing brutal conflict, where excellent medical care is readily available, people with spinal injuries are susceptible to serious complications. Rama returned to Ariha with her family, but developed pressure sores on her back. Her parents managed to get her out of Syria for another operation and further treatment in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, which is where I met her.

Several rehabilitation clinics have sprung up in Reyhanli, where injured Syrians can recover after operations performed at Turkish hospitals. The accommodations are meant to be temporary. One recuperates, gets back on his feet, and leaves the clinic to make room for the next patient.

But as more and more Syrians endure shelling, sniper fire, and other lethal weaponry, the clinics are filling up with severely injured patients, including many who are paraplegic and quadriplegic, with no place else to go. People who have spinal injuries need access to specialized, long-term medical care and living spaces. The health care system in Syria has been nearly destroyed, and affordable, wheelchair-friendly housing is difficult to find in rural Turkey.

(Watch a great interview with volunteer conflict zone surgeon David Nott here. He returned from a five-week posting in northern Syria in October and talks about Syria's broken medical care system, injuries caused by snipers, and what he thinks the international community can do to help. From BBC's HARDtalk.)

Increasingly, the residents of these clinics are children and teens like Rama.

Rama's mother, left, and a friend lift her from bed to wheelchair.

The United Nations estimates that 7 million Syrians have fled their homes and at least 10 million require emergency humanitarian assistance. More than 100,000 people, and at least 6,000 children, have been killed since Syria's uprising began in March 2011.

If they can, the most severely injured seek medical care across the border in Turkey. Rama was staying in this particular rehabilitation clinic with around 80 other patients, 31 of them with some level of paralysis due to spinal cord injury. The director of the clinic, a Syrian lawyer named Yasir Alsyed, told me they see an additional 80-100 outpatients daily.

Rama's mother helps her with her hijab, the Islamic veil.

Rama and her family came to the clinic three months ago. She needed a procedure to drain the fluid from the sores on her back, and was also doing physical therapy sessions. Shy but friendly, Rama was incredibly positive and good-natured.

"I want to take her home [to Syria] but there is nothing for her there," said Rama's mother, who declined to give her name.

The United States and other western countries give millions of dollars in critical humanitarian and medical aid to organizations like the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross, which then distribute the lion's share of western aid to Syria. Unfortunately, for mostly political reasons, that assistance generally does not reach civilians in rebel-controlled areas. Both organizations recognize and continue to work through the government of Bashar Al-Assad, which allows the regime to control distribution of the aid. (There are other organizations like Doctors without Borders and the Turkish IHH, among others, working in rebel-controlled areas.)

Rama in the room she shares with another patient.

Patients stay in the rehabilitation center for free. Sometimes one or more family members stay with them. This recovery center is funded almost entirely by Syrian expats.

Alsyed, the director, said a longer-term care house for people who have been paralyzed is desperately needed. "If we continue like this, the whole facility will be paraplegic patients," he said.

Rama, at right, attends the rehab clinic's school--an improvised classroom. All of the children are different ages and academic levels, and some of them haven't been in school for a year or longer. The school is mostly a chance for them to get together and do something constructive, to bring a sense of normalcy and routine to their days.

Nadal, 13, is in the foreground of the above photo. His home in Idlib was bombed, fracturing his legs in multiple places.

Rama matches English words for colors with their Arabic equivalents. She said she enjoys school and wants to continue her studies, despite the difficult situation.

Saleh, 13, from Idlib, in the classroom. He became paraplegic when he was injured in a rocket attack near his home. 

Patients and their families gathered in the clinic's courtyard to chant anti-regime slogans on the second anniversary of the Syrian uprising, March 15, 2013. At left is Malik, an 11-year-old amputee. He was in the early stages of learning to walk again with the aid of a prosthetic.

Later in the day, the children and teens from the recovery center were invited to a kid's celebration, organized by a group of exiled Syrian opposition activists. Above, Maysa, 12, puts barrettes in her hair while getting ready for the party.

Maysa, second from right, was shot in the back by a sniper in her village Kafr Rouma, in the Idlib countryside. Her father was also shot and killed. Intense fighting forced Maysa, her mother, and her siblings to hide in a cave for a whole month, until her mother was able to smuggle her into Turkey to get medical treatment. Maysa was so traumatized by all that had happened that she stopped speaking, but with time and therapy at the rehabilitation clinic, she started to talk again, and to smile.

Maysa's roommate in the clinic is Khadija, at left in the above photo. Khadija, 18 and recently married, was injured when her town in the Hama countryside was shelled. She is also paraplegic.

Rama winces in pain while being carried a bit too roughly down the stairs. She has some sensation in her back and can feel her wounds.

Rama, at left, and the other teens and children living in the rehabilitation center waited outside the gates for the Syrian exiles to send transportation to take them to the party, where they would join other Syrian refugee children living in Reyhanli.

They waited and waited. There was a sinking feeling as the time passed. Someone went back inside to ask if a van from the rehab center could transport them to the party, but there wasn't one available.

Finally realizing that they had been forgotten, that no bus was coming to take them to a party, they went for a walk instead.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Portraits after a coup in Egypt

Nour Zakaria, 24, Morsi supporter, Rabaa Al-Adaweya Mosque, Cairo, Egypt, July 4, 2013. 

While in Egypt in early July, I worked for about a week with The Guardian (UK) newspaper and correspondent Martin Chulov. Egypt's first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was removed from power in a military coup on July 3, after millions of Egyptians demonstrated against him in cities throughout the country on June 30. For one of my assignments after the military takeover, I was asked to take portraits of Egyptians from all over the political spectrum in an attempt to gauge the overall mood in the aftermath of the coup.

Khaled El-Qadi poses July 7 in Alexandria next to a poster of General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi before the start of a rally supporting the defense minister and commander-in-chief who announced the military takeover. El-Qadi is the Tamarod ("rebellion" in Arabic) coordinator in Egypt's second largest city. Tamarod called for the June 30, 2013 protests, held on the anniversary of Mohamed Morsi's first day in the presidential office, which led to his forced removal from power.

Osama Yousef, 45, was photographed in front of graffiti depicting violent clashes between police and protesters, on Mohamed Mahmoud Street near Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 4. Yousef was in favor of removing president Mohamed Morsi from power.

Mohammed Hani, 22, holding a poster of ousted president Mohamed Morsi in one hand and a small Koran in the other, at the main sit-in near Rabaa Al-Adaweya mosque in Cairo, July 4.

Nancy Riyadh, 26, and her mother Yvonne Hanna, 54, members of Egypt's Christian religious minority, said they had been worried about the direction Egypt was headed and were relieved that president Mohamed Morsi was ousted. Tahrir Square, Cairo, July 4.

Sheikh Muhammad Abdel Bari, an associate of the Muslim Brotherhood, in a mosque in Port Said, a military stronghold, on July 8. Members of the Brotherhood in Port Said were reeling from news that 50 Morsi supporters had been shot and killed by the Army in front of the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo that morning.

Carmen Bedawi, 28, photographed July 4 at a coffee shop in an upscale Cairo neighborhood, said she was glad president Mohamed Morsi was forced from power.

Tour guide Mohamed Mahmoud in Medinet Habu Temple, empty of tourists, in Luxor on July 9. Shortly before being removed from power by the Egyptian military, president Mohamed Morsi enraged residents in Luxor when he appointed Adel El-Khayat, who was a member of formerly violent Islamic group Gamaa Al-Islamiya, as governor. Egypt's tourism industry has been hit hard by all the turmoil of the past two years. Mahmoud kept a neutral position, saying "There is a future for Egypt only if there is reconciliation."

Asmaa Fathi, 30, and her three children: 11-year-old Dima, 9-year-old Iman, and 3-year-old Abdullah, Tahrir Square, Cairo on July 4. Fathi celebrated the removal of president Mohamed Morsi.

Abdul Muneim Ahmad, 35, with his shield, hard hat, and plastic stick to defend himself and other Morsi supporters from attack, near the entrance to the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in in Cairo, July 4.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Red Istanbul

Taksim Square, Istanbul, Turkey, June 8, 2013.

On a purely aesthetic level, what do you get when you combine football fans (with flares), communists, and the Turkish flag? Answer: lots of red photographs. From Istanbul's June protests and clashes, here is the reddest set of photos I've ever taken on a single story:

Night in Gezi Park

 9:43 p.m.: Gezi Park, June 14, 2013.

A little park in the heart of Istanbul, Turkey, sparked a nation-wide protest movement.

Around dawn on Friday, May 31, 2013, Turkish police raided a small sit-in at Gezi Park in Istanbul's Taksim Square, using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse demonstrators camped there. A group of activists had been occupying the park to protest plans to raze it and build an Ottoman-era military barracks and shopping mall in its place. The crackdown by police continued throughout the day.

In response to police violence, thousands of people marched from all over Istanbul toward Taksim Square and Gezi Park on Saturday, June 1st. Police attempted to disperse demonstrators again, but there were too many. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon (at least, that was the time of day it happened in my neighborhood), the police stood down and allowed the people to march peacefully to Taksim.

For the next two weeks, thousands of people met in Gezi Park and in Taksim to protest, and hundreds slept in the park at night, in a sit-in modeled after the Occupy Wall Street movement. Demonstrations also spread to Turkey's other cities--Ankara, Izmir, Antakya. The demonstrations brought feminists, environmentalists, socialists, anarchists, intellectuals, football fans, anti-capitalist Muslims, secularists, Kurds and other ethnic minorities, nationalists, and labor unions together--people whom Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly called "looters". The sit-in ended when police raided the park and emptied it on the evening of June 15. The park's fate remains unclear.

The controversy over the park is one in a wide range of grievances in what some Turks see as an increasingly authoritarian government. People demonstrated not only against the destruction of neighborhoods and green spaces in the name of "urban development," but also against government corruption, a heavily censored and suppressed mainstream media, and increasing "Islamization" of the legal code (restrictions on alcohol sales and a ban on kissing in public, for example).

I spent quite a bit of time in Gezi Park during the sit-in, even spending the night there on several occasions. Gezi Park was the heart and larger symbol of a movement for change--the physical place where people gravitated and stayed to make their voices heard in a tradition of non-violent resistance. Despite clashes with police that happened in other areas of Istanbul (at least 5 people were killed and thousands injured, nation-wide), the park was the starting point and the anchor, and it remained peaceful.

The sit-in no longer exists, so it's not there for people to see and investigate for themselves. The pictures are a chance to see a unique moment in Istanbul's history, and also a reminder that the people whom Erdogan labeled as "looters" and "bums" were in fact probably not criminals, but regular people with valid concerns about the conduct of their government.

These photographs were all taken at night or in the very early morning, when people of all ages and backgrounds conversed, sang, played music, ate and drank, danced, relaxed, partied, chanted, slept, laughed, marched, and co-existed.

3:02 a.m.: Tents and nighttime conversation.

10:10 p.m.: The chow line. The sit-in received enough donated food to feed anyone who wanted lunch or dinner everyday.

12:09 a.m.: A couple launched a paper lantern.

2:03 a.m.: Playing guitar and relaxing.

2:58 a.m. Plastic sheet to keep out the rain; hard hats, protective goggles and gas masks in case of another police raid.

12:49 a.m.: Sila, 29, nestled in the arms of her boyfriend and drinking beer with friends.

4:14 a.m.: Some protesters continued to work during the day, only arriving at the park to sleep at night.

12:01 a.m.: Lights strung up between the trees.

3:17 a.m.: Tweeting, texting, and reading the news.

2:03 a.m.: Football fans chant anti-government slogans.

2:52 a.m.: Resting and smoking.

10:50 p.m.: Candlelight.

2:29 a.m.: Disco ball.

4:51 a.m.: Sleeping.

6:42 a.m.: Still sleeping.

6:40 a.m.: A few people are still awake.

6:29 a.m.: Sun starting to come up.

6:36 a.m.

7:20 a.m.: A young man covers sleeping occupiers with a blanket.

6:54 a.m.: This looks pretty uncomfortable.

7:48 a.m.: Sun's up.

9:07 p.m.: Police block the entrance of Gezi Park, as they empty it of protesters on June 15, after Erdogan gave his final warning for demonstrators to leave the park.

9:18 p.m.: Police force protesters to leave Gezi Park amid thick clouds of tear gas on June 15.

9:20 p.m.: June 15