Ground Zero at the Frontline Club

June 30, 2014

By Richard Nield

A compelling Frontline Club event on Wednesday 25 June showcased film and photographic work from across the globe that revealed both the depth of suffering and the strength of human spirit in some of the world’s most devastating internal conflicts.

Featured at the event was a series of photographs from Tim Freccia in South Sudan, Alvaro Ybarra Zavala in Venezuela, Eman Mohammed in Gaza and Daniel Berehulak in Afghanistan, curated by multimedia photojournalist and filmmaker John D McHugh.

The event culminated in a screening of Ground Zero Syria, a dramatic film by Robert King featuring unprecedented footage of the brutal conflict in Syria, and an impassioned interview with King by The Times journalist Anthony Loyd that offered some chilling conclusions about the future of the conflict.

Robert King and Anthony Loyd at the Frontline Club.

All of the showcased work shared a common theme: that of the determination of each journalist to bring to light the plight of people facing oppression or armed struggle in their home countries, and to reveal the characters of those individuals caught up in some of the world’s most dangerous conflicts.

Among Freccia’s work was a set of portraits of soldiers from the White Army, a ruthless militia group fighting alongside former Vice President Riek Machar in his campaign against the government of South Sudan.

In Freccia’s unique portraits, presented against a white background, he aimed to show through the expressions and postures of his subjects the “humanity present in these characters, for good or bad, which is often neglected”.

Zavala’s photographs were captured in Caracas and San Cristobal in February and March this year as the protests against Venezuela’s government escalated.

A picture of a woman slumped over the coffin of a lost loved one revealed the sacrifices made by the protestors, while another featured a combatant in plastic protective glasses making Molotov cocktails to take into the fray.

Mohammed took up photojournalism at the age of 19. In a narration of her photographs, she explained how she had to overcome cultural barriers to a woman pursuing such a career.

“I thought I had what it took to be a career photographer,” she said. “I was wrong. To gain acceptance in a male dominated field was next to impossible.”

Covering the war in Gaza in 2008-09 and under fire from aerial bomb attacks, the ground “shaking like a swing beneath us”, Mohammed was abandoned by the two male journalists with whom she was travelling. “Terrified, humiliated and feeling sorry for myself”, she learned a valuable lesson.

Mohammed‘s career has been characterised by a constant tension between capturing her own agony and that of others:

“You can freeze, but your camera cannot. If you don’t document history, it never happened.”

Her work included touching portraits of Mohamed Hodr, who along with 22 members of his family lived for several years beneath the rubble of what was once his home.

The only surviving remnant of what was to be a retirement retreat was a jacuzzi, which he hauled up to the roof of his shattered home so that each morning he could give his children a bubble bath.

Berehulak’s work focused on the terrible impact that the rapidly rising use of heroin in Afghanistan is having on the local population. One in 10 urban households in the country has at least one drug user, and in rural areas heroin use is as high as 30 per cent.

A set of photographs of one hospital ward that was admitting 200 children a month for severe malnutrition featured pictures of young children so wrinkled with starvation that they looked more like the elderly than the newly born. At a year-and-a-half, Mohammed weighed just 10 pounds.

“Nearly every potential lifeline is strained or broken here,” said Berehulak in his narration. “Women are kept away from everyone except those in their immediate family.

“Farmers can’t grow crops because of mines, and doctors can’t get to children until the situation is already severe. Women can’t nourish their own children [because of the heroin use].”

At the country’s premier children’s hospital in Kabul, a five-year-old boy weighing just 20 pounds was being treated on a bench because the infusion line wouldn’t reach to a bed. The drug problem, said the director of demand reduction at the ministry of health, is a tsunami for his country.

Ground Zero Syria

Screened in the second half of the event, King’s film gave a unique insight into the fighters of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) in their efforts to survive the brutal attacks of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“For six to seven months we didn’t even think about picking up weapons,” said one.

“We started out with olive branches, but [in the end] the only option was to take up arms and put him [Assad] out of office.”

At a field hospital in Al-Qusayr, southwest of Homs near the border with Lebanon, a young boy looked forlornly up at the camera with a single streak of blood spilling from the corner of his mouth. Across the ward, another child’s guts were bursting through his sundered stomach.

“If I die when I help people it is good for me,” said a doctor at the hospital. “I’m a doctor, I must help people.”

At the Dar al-Shifa field hospital in Aleppo, Dr Osman, a physician at the hospital, explained how he had nightmares about amputating children’s limbs, but each day resisted the urge to return to normal life because there was no one else to help these people.

According to Osman, about 80 per cent of the patients at Dar al-Shifa are civilians. At the time of the interview, the hospital had already been bombed five times, with another 15 bombings nearby.

“The Syrian regime considers medical staff as a perfect target, as a military target,” he said.  “When you kill one doctor it is better than killing a thousand fighters.”

In November 2012, King was there when the hospital was hit yet again, but still hope was not vanquished.

“Dar al-Shifa is not a building, it’s not a machine; it’s people, it’s doctors, nurses,” said Osman, speaking amidst the rubble.

“We will continue. We will build this hospital again and we will work again.”

In one striking scene, Dr Abaman, a former veterinarian working as an assistant physician at the hospital, appealed directly to the camera, emotion cracking his voice:

“We have enough shown TV. Do something. Do something. We are suffering here alone.”

The film also featured the tragic burning of Aleppo’s market, a world heritage site and one of the world’s best-preserved souks.

King asked Ahmed Alhaji, who had witnessed the fire, to explain what he had seen.

“I saw a lot of things that make me cry,” he said. “I saw Assad destroy our history. My heart is broken, I was crying blood.”

Towards the end of the film, King asked an FSA fighter what he thought of the West’s Syria policy. The West’s inaction before – and even after – evidence came to light of the use of chemical weapons in Syria, he said, was a sign to Assad that:

“Whatever you want to do, go ahead and do it. You want to kill 100,000 people that’s okay; you want to drop 100,000 tonnes of bombs that’s fine. Chemical weapons? Just keep 2030 per cent of them.”

Most of the characters featured in the film, said King, are now dead.

Beyond the obvious perils of filming during an almost constant artillery bombardment, King faced his own challenges in shooting the film, not least the very lack of engagement from the West and its media that was alluded to by the film’s characters.

“I had to reassess why I was risking my life to cover slaughter,” said King in the Q&A with Loyd.

“I’d been there for four months and had photographed 5,000 dead bodies and nobody cared. No one would buy my photographs, so I started shooting video.”

The politics within Syria were also a source of frustration for King. He saw a shipment of powdered milk he had helped facilitate first held up in customs and then less than welcomed by those who had been benefiting from the black market in the product.

Those people who had helped him gain access to the country started to try to influence his material and, when he refused, banned him from going back.

“In the first year I figured that their politics were holding up the medical needs of the community,” said King. “Then they wanted to control the message.”

Asked by members of the audience whether his work could be used to try the perpetrators of the violence, King expressed his frustration with the absence of a more effective international legal system:

“If there was an international court of law that could hold people accountable for their war crimes . . . but why give my stuff to some organisation that fantasises that it can prosecute people?”

Loyd and King agreed that the future for the country is bleak and the potential fallout dire.

“The war launched against Al Qaeda was one thing,” said Loyd, wearing a cast around his leg after sustaining gunshot injuries in the latest of many reporting trips to Syria.

“Now something far worse [Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS)] has taken up a huge block of the Middle East running almost to the Mediterranean, and the West is aghast as to how to deal with the situation.

“Syria has raised a huge question mark and nobody knows what to do.”

King is convinced that chemical weapons have been smuggled out of Syria and have already reached Western European capitals. Asked whether he was planning to go back to Syria, he said:

“I don’t have to go to Syria. It’s done. It’s here. It’s over. I’m going to sit and wait.”