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Photographing the Holocaust

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When the very first photos from Belsen Bergen and Buchenwald concentration camps were released in the late April 1945, the general public was incredulous. Yes, they had read the newspapers and heard the rumors, but they didn’t necessarily believe them, dismissing them as typical wartime propaganda by exiled governments. There were precedents, too: during World War I, it had been widely rumored that the Germans on the Western Front were melting down human bodies for fat (these rumors later turned out to be false).

Radio reporter Richard Dimbleby, a man of unimpeachable integrity, had had great difficulty persuading a dubious BBC to broadcast his fast eye-witness report from Belsen. A London cinema showing the first film from the camps was picketed by an angry crowd, protesting government ‘lies’. Their anger was shared by millions of Germans, who while aware of the camps, were convinced that the atrocities had been grossly exaggerated by Allied propaganda.

Photos helped turned this around. By the end of April 1945, eighty-one percent of the British population believed the Holocaust stories, up from thirty seven percent only six months earlier. On May 1, 1945, the Daily Express organized an exhibition called ‘Seeing is Believing’ in London, where people queued in thousands to see the pictures from Buchenwald. Later, a film from Belsen was shown in the cinemas: skeletons bulldozed into burial pits, and German civilians standing beside the SS at the graveside, all of it filmed in one take, so that there could be no accusations of trick photography.

The photo above and below showed Dr. Fritz Klein, a German doctor at Bergen-Belsen, at Mass Grave 3. It was photographed by a soldier from  The British Fifth Army Film & Photographic Unit shortly after the camp’s liberation on 15th April 1945. Unrepentant Klein, who began his work at Auschwitz-Birkenau, was eventually hanged in December 1945.

— some text incorporated from Nicholas Best’s Five Days That Shocked the World


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

December 9, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Posted in War

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When MacArthur Met the Emperor

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Japan officially surrendered on September 2nd, 1945. What happened next was an equally interesting story.

General Douglas MacArthur had landed at Atsugi airbase two days before; since the VJ day, he had been asked by President Truman to oversee the occupation of Japan. It was a daunting task. On his drive to Yokohama from Atsugi, tens of thousands of Japanese soldiers greeted him with their bayonets out in one final act of symbolic defiance. Seventy percent of Americans thought Emperor Hirohito should be persecuted; there were protests outside MacArthur’s headquarters by American servicemen and calls in Australian and Russian press to that effect.

However, MacArthur understood that for the transition to be smooth, the imperial rule must persist. Yet, he didn’t make the customary call to the palace; instead, he waited for the emperor to make the first contact. On 27th September, Hirohito finally crossed the palace moat to reach MacArthur’s headquarters at the Dai-Ichi Life Insurance Company — requisitioned for its relative intactness and its proximity to both the palace and the American embassy. In The Man Who Saved Kabuki, Shin Okamoto wrote:

MacArthur greeted the emperor at the entrance to the reception room, shaking his hand and saying, ‘You are very, very welcome sir.’ The emperor kept bowing lower and lower until MacArthur found himself shaking hands with him over the emperor’s head. Only the emperor, MacArthur and Okamura, the interpreter went into the reception room. Then the door to the reception room was opened and Lt. Gaetano Faillace, of the military camera corps, took a now famous photograph of the emperor and MacArthur from outside the room.”

Faillace was given one shot, but he spoke up and asked for three. Faillace also adviced MacArthur against a seated picture on a soft couch. First two photos were less than ideal — their eyes were closed in one, and the Emperor’s mouth was gaping open in the other. But even the perfect, final shot posed its own problems: at this juncture, Hirohito was still  akitsumikami or manifest deity (he would not renounce his divinity before the coming New Year’s Day), and everyone was supposed to avert eyes from the veiled imperial portraits in government buildings.

Thus, printing the photo was deemed sacrilegious, not least because of the general’s extremely casual attire and his even more pointed body language. MacArthur’s office itself had to intervene to Japanese censors to have it printed. It ran on 29th September. He had to intervene again when the photo appeared in the New York Times alongside an unprecedented interview with the Emperor — where he criticized his government on failing to declare war on US before Pearl Harbour — and police tried to confiscate the papers.

Outside Japan, too, the general’s informal appearance shocked many. Even Life clutched its pearls and wrote, “MacArthur did not trouble to put on a tie for the occasion”. As for the contents of their 40-minute tete-a-tete, nothing was made public; the two men would meet 10 more times during MacArthur’s sojourn as the American Proconsul. The general never paid a return call to the palace.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

September 28, 2012 at 7:54 pm

V-J Day in Contact Sheets

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For this photo, no further caption is needed, and no more ink (pixels?) will be wasted. Instead, I will leave you with Alfred Eisenstaedt’s two slightly different remembrances of that iconic day. In Eisenstaedt on Eisenstaedt (1985):

In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight. Whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make a difference. I was running ahead of him with my Leica looking back over my shoulder but none of the pictures that were possible pleased me. Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.

Only one is right, on account of the balance. In the others the emphasis is wrong — the sailor on the left side is either too small or too tall. People tell me that when I am in heaven they will remember this picture.

In The Eye of Eisenstaedt (1969), he recalled differently:

I was walking through the crowds on V-J Day, looking for pictures. I noticed a sailor coming my way. He was grabbing every female he could find and kissing them all — young girls and old ladies alike. Then I noticed the nurse, standing in that enormous crowd. I focused on her, and just as I’d hoped, the sailor came along, grabbed the nurse, and bent down to kiss her. Now if this girl hadn’t been a nurse, if she’d been dressed dark clothes, I wouldn’t have had a picture. The contrast between her white dress and the sailor’s dark uniform gives the photograph its extra impact.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 14, 2012 at 1:26 pm

Posted in Contact Sheets, War

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Hiroshima and Nagaski as seen by Japanese Photographers

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This blog has covered the Atom Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagaski before. Here, Iconic Photos looks back yet again. 

The very first pictures taken in Hiroshima was by Yoshito Matsushige who was just outside the blastzone; he looked out of his window into a large mushroom cloud, and took the only photographs taken of Hiroshima on that calamitous day. Of his 24 possible exposures, only seven came out right.

Two Asahi Shimbun travelled to Hiroshima. Hajime Miyatake arrived on August 9; Eiichi Matsumoto on August 18. Today, there are 121 of Miyatake’s and 157 of Matsumoto’s photos. Miyatake and Matsumoto’s photos are exceeded in number only by those taken by Shunkichi Kikuchi and Shigeo Hayashi. The latter duo was sent by Japan’s Special Committee for the Investigation of A-bomb Damages. They documented Hiroshima between  30 September to 22 October 1945. (Kikuchi’s photo above).

In Nagaski, a military photographer Yosuke Yamahata took over a hundred photographs in twelve hours in the  afternoon of August 10th, the very next day after the bombing. These photos were the first to be seen by the Japanese. In between Japan’s surrender and arrival of the American Occupation Forces, they were printed in 21 August issue of Mainichi Shimbun.

After the Americans arrived, however, tight censorships began. Miyatake and Matsumoto were forced to surrender their prints and ordered to burn their negatives. Both hid them instead, Miyatake under his porch and Matsumoto inside his locker at the company. After the Occupation ended in 1952, the Asahi Graph published a special edition on August 6th 1952, titled First Exposé of A-bomb Damage. It proved to be extremely popular, and the Asahi Shimbun had to run four additional printings with a black and white cover replacing the original color cover. The total circulation was 700,000.

In the U.S., Life magazine followed suit on 29th September 1952, featuring Yamahata’s famous photo of a breastfeeding Japanese woman, which had Madonna overtones. In accompanying editorial, Life wrote, “Dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them. Peace and the way to attain it, which paradoxically may mean that we have to prepared for war, has been a world issue…. the love of peace has no meaning or no stamina unless it is based on a knowledge of war’s terrors.”  A 2012 website version of Life, however, takes a more wtf approach; it nonchalantly notes: “The reasons most of these and many more pictures by LIFE photographers on the ground in both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were never published have largely been lost or simply forgotten over the intervening seven decades.”

Seriously. I think Life needs to hire a better intern.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

August 10, 2012 at 5:48 pm

Jean Gaumy, Iran

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Jean Gaumy began his career as a writer and photographer. His exposes on French healthcare and prison systems (he was the first photojournalist to be allowed inside a French prison) led to reforms. Today, he is better known for his photo of Iran’s chandored female militia practicing firing.

Gaumy visited Iran six or seven times over a four-year period. As he recalled:

“For me it was an opportunity to discover the true meaning of what Iran was, to be in a hot news place and really find out about it. I had listened to friends and colleagues at home, all of whom had an opinion on Iran, so my head was buzzing with received information, but when I got out there, I knew I would have to find out the real story for myself. Abbas told me not to believe anything I read in the newspapers about Iran and he was perfectly right. I found it very exciting, discovering an entirely new and different way of life.”

On his first visit, he became the first western photographer to be granted access to the Iranian training camp for female Basij militia on the outskirts of Tehran. It was in 1986, at the height of Iran-Iraq War, and the photos were ayatollahs’ way of saying even our women were prepared to fight and die for us. The war was not going swimmingly for the Islamic Republic; after the initial decisive  victories in 1981-82, Iran had united the United States and the Soviet Union against itself. Alarmed by the prospects of a victorious Iran fomenting Islamic Revolution across Middle East and Central Asia, the Soviet Union, the Gulf States and the NATO began openly arming the Iraqis. The war would drag on for another six years.

Basij militia — whose voluntary members are promised with martyrdom — still survives. During the war, they were sent before the army as a human wave to clear minefields and shield the army from the enemy’s fire. These days, it serves at a de facto religious police of the Islamic Republic, enforcing hijab laws and sex segregation.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

June 24, 2012 at 12:20 pm

From “Never Again” to “Once More” …. We Are There Again in Houla

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These are the events and photos too graphic even for those who deal with them daily. The Times will not publish more photos from the massacre; neither will CNN. Iconic Photos will not either (at this particular time), but I will link them here. (WARNING: extremely distressing, gory, and haunting. Viewer discretion advised).

It will need thousands of words to describe, acknowledge, and condemn this atrocity, but pictures being so traumatic, we will have to make do with descriptive words (from The Times):

One photograph shows a cherubic baby girl, no older than 2, with a tiny gold ear-stud. She is wrapped in a white shroud. Half her skull has been hacked or blown away. A saucer of bone juts from a bloody gash in what remains of her head.

Another shows what appears to be a boy of perhaps 6 or 7. The blanket in which he is wrapped has fallen away to expose a bare white shoulder. He looks as if he is sleeping, but the back of his head has been lopped off like the top of a boiled egg. His brain lies on the blanket behind him.

A third shows a pretty young girl staring upwards, her mouth slightly open as if smiling. Above her right eye there is a large, bloody bullet hole surrounded by a mess of flesh and bone.

The pictures go on, some mercifully out of focus, most far too shocking to print in The Times though our failure to do so spares the Assad regime.

There is a baby wearing nothing but a nappy, seemingly untouched except that it lacks an arm. Another young girl wearing a blood-soaked T-shirt with the word “Baby” or “Dolly” written on it has had her jaw shot away. A man carries the body of a child with only half a head remaining.

The photos are from the Damascus-based Shaam News Network, a citizen reporting collective.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

May 30, 2012 at 7:48 am

Posted in Politics, War

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Jean Leslie (1923 – 2012)

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Jean Leslie, MI5 secretary whose photograph may or may not have changed the outcome of the Second World War, has died, aged 88.

It was quite provocative and personal by the standards of the day

It was a plan devised by two, approved by twenty: to mislead the Axis powers that instead of attacking Sicily, the Allies intended to invade Greece, then Sardinia, and then southern France. Live agents were risky — they could be tortured or turned, so the ideal plan was to create an agent who was not only fictitious but also dead.

Inside Section 17M, a unit of the British intelligence service so secret that only a handful of people knew of its existence, two officers with impeccably British names of Montagu and Cholmondeley created this imaginary agent, his likes and dislikes, his habits and hobbies, his talents and weaknesses. They gave him a middle name, a religion, a nicotine habit and a place of birth. They gave him a hometown, rank, regiment, bank manager, solicitor and cufflinks. Most importantly, they gave him a supportive family, money, friends, and a fiancée named Pam.

To create a believable fiancée, Cholmondeley wanted a photograph of Pam, so he asked the most attractive girls from the Secret Service to provide the kind of photo which a red-blooded young Marines officer would be likely to carry about his person. It was an open invitation, but Montagu in fact already had a strong candidate in mind — Jean Leslie. Montagu indicated to her that she might be a favoured candidate were she to be interested, and Miss Leslie provided the photo taken the previous summer; she had been swimming in the River Thames near Little Wittenham in Oxfordshire, with a Grenadier Guardsman on leave called Tony and he had taken the above photograph.

With that photograph, Major William “Bill” Martin of the Royal Marines, ID 148228, was complete. Among his possessions, placed with fictitious invasion plans, were an angry letter from Lloyd’s about an overdraft, a bill for shirts, a used bus ticket, a stern letter from his father, and a couple of love letters from affectionate but dim Pam — composed by Leslie’s own spinster superior. A drowned body was taken from a morgue in London and dispatched to the Spanish coast, where pro-Nazi officials passed the misleading documents to the Germans.

The deception was indeed effective. Hitler became convinced that any attack on Sicily would only be a decoy for the main assault in Greece and Sardinia, and for two weeks after the Sicily landings on the island on July 9, 1943, no attempt was made to rush reinforcements to meet them.

— see Ben McIntyre’s Operation Mincemeat for more details.


Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

April 9, 2012 at 1:27 pm

Posted in Society, War

J. Ross Baughman | Rhodesia

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Here at IP, I am devoted to providing accurate and informative backstories about iconic photos, but sometimes, I simply get things wrong. Here is one of such stories: @aalholmes

In 1977, J. Ross Baughman was documenting the bloody guerrilla war that broke out in Rhodesia as the minority white rule slowly disintegrates there; the attacks on anti-government guerillas were especially fierce and Baughman rode with a cavalry unit, Grey’s Scouts, and captured them torturing prisoners. Baughman remembers:

They force them to line up in push-up stance. They’re holding that position for 45 minutes in the sun, many of them starting to shake violently. Eventually, the first guy fell. They took him around the back of the building, knocked him out and fired a shot into the air. They continued bring men to the back of the building. The poor guy on the end started crying and going crazy and he finally broke and started talking. As it turns out, what he was saying wasn’t true, but the scouts were willing to use it as a lead. It had all the feeling of an eventual massacre. I was afraid that I might see entire villages murdered.

In my original post (June 2010), I posited that journalists don’t usually carry guns, since that meant forfeiture of a journalist’s status  as a neutral noncombatant under international law. I also erroneously claimed that J. Ross Baughman was the first photographer to tote a gun. In his correspondence to me, Mr. Baughman points out:

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

March 15, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Posted in Politics, War

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“We live in fear of a massacre”

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Yesterday, Marie Colvin asked her friends and colleagues to break her newspaper’s firewall and post her last report from the besieged Syrian enclave of Baba Amr, where she was the only British journalist. Today, she is gone, a victim of the government attack on the makeshift shelter for the foreign press. As per her wishes, here is her heartrending final report from Homs: 

They call it the widows’ basement. Crammed amid makeshift beds and scattered belongings are frightened women and children trapped in the horror of Homs, the Syrian city shaken by two weeks of relentless bombardment.

Among the 300 huddling in this wood factory cellar in the besieged district of Baba Amr is 20-year-old Noor, who lost her husband and her home to the shells and rockets.

“Our house was hit by a rocket so 17 of us were staying in one room,” she recalls as Mimi, her three-year-old daughter, and Mohamed, her five-year-old son, cling to her abaya.

“We had had nothing but sugar and water for two days and my husband went to try to find food.” It was the last time she saw Maziad, 30, who had worked in a mobile phone repair shop. “He was torn to pieces by a mortar shell.”

For Noor, it was a double tragedy. Adnan, her 27-year-old brother, was killed at Maziad’s side.

Everyone in the cellar has a similar story of hardship or death. The refuge was chosen because it is one of the few basements in Baba Amr. Foam mattresses are piled against the walls and the children have not seen the light of day since the siege began on February 4. Most families fled their homes with only the clothes on their backs.

The city is running perilously short of supplies and the only food here is rice, tea and some tins of tuna delivered by a local sheikh who looted them from a bombed-out supermarket.

A baby born in the basement last week looked as shellshocked as her mother, Fatima, 19, who fled there when her family’s single-storey house was obliterated. “We survived by a miracle,” she whispers. Fatima is so traumatised that she cannot breastfeed, so the baby has been fed only sugar and water; there is no formula milk.

Fatima may or may not be a widow. Her husband, a shepherd, was in the countryside when the siege started with a ferocious barrage and she has heard no word of him since.

The widows’ basement reflects the ordeal of 28,000 men, women and children clinging to existence in Baba Amr, a district of low concrete-block homes surrounded on all sides by Syrian forces. The army is launching Katyusha rockets, mortar shells and tank rounds at random.

Snipers on the rooftops of al-Ba’ath University and other high buildings surrounding Baba Amr shoot any civilian who comes into their sights. Residents were felled in droves in the first days of the siege but have now learnt where the snipers are and run across junctions where they know they can be seen. Few cars are left on the streets.

Almost every building is pock-marked after tank rounds punched through concrete walls or rockets blasted gaping holes in upper floors. The building I was staying in lost its upper floor to a rocket last Wednesday. On some streets whole buildings have collapsed — all there is to see are shredded clothes, broken pots and the shattered furniture of families destroyed.

It is a city of the cold and hungry, echoing to exploding shells and bursts of gunfire. There are no telephones and the electricity has been cut off. Few homes have diesel for the tin stoves they rely on for heat in the coldest winter that anyone can remember. Freezing rain fills potholes and snow drifts in through windows empty of glass. No shops are open, so families are sharing what they have with relatives and neighbours. Many of the dead and injured are those who risked foraging for food.

Fearing the snipers’ merciless eyes, families resorted last week to throwing bread across rooftops, or breaking through communal walls to pass unseen.

The Syrians have dug a huge trench around most of the district, and let virtually nobody in or out. The army is pursuing a brutal campaign to quell the resistance of Homs, Hama and other cities that have risen up against Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whose family has been in power for 42 years.

In Baba Amr, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the armed face of opposition to Assad, has virtually unanimous support from civilians who see them as their defenders. It is an unequal battle: the tanks and heavy weaponry of Assad’s troops against the Kalashnikovs of the FSA.

About 5,000 Syrian soldiers are believed to be on the outskirts of Baba Amr, and the FSA received reports yesterday that they were preparing a ground assault. The residents dread the outcome.

“We live in fear the FSA will leave the city,” said Hamida, 43, hiding with her children and her sister’s family in an empty ground-floor apartment after their house was bombed. “There will be a massacre.”

On the lips of everyone was the question: “Why have we been abandoned by the world?”

Ban Ki-moon, the secretary-general of the United Nations, said last week: “We see neighbourhoods shelled indiscriminately, hospitals used as torture centres, children as young as 10 years old killed and abused. We see almost certainly crimes against humanity.” Yet the international community has not come to the aid of the innocent caught in this hell.

Abdel Majid, 20, who was helping to rescue the wounded from bombed buildings, made a simple plea. “Please tell the world they must help us,” he said, shaking, with haunted eyes. “Just stop the bombing. Please, just stop the shelling.”

The journey across the countryside from the Lebanese border to Homs would be idyllic in better times. The villages are nondescript clusters of concrete buildings on dirt tracks but the lanes are lined with cypresses and poplar trees and wind through orchards of apricot and apple trees.

These days, however, there is an edge of fear on any journey through this area. Most of this land is essentially what its residents call “Syria hurra”, or free Syria, patrolled by the FSA.

Nevertheless, Assad’s army has checkpoints on the main roads and troops stationed in schools, hospitals and factories. They are heavily armed and backed by tanks and artillery.

So a drive to Homs is a bone-rattling struggle down dirt roads, criss-crossing fields. Men cluster by fires at unofficial FSA checkpoints, eyeing any vehicle suspiciously. As night falls, flashlights waved by unseen figures signal that the way ahead is clear.

Each travelling FSA car has a local shepherd or farmer aboard to help navigate the countryside; the Syrian army may have the power, but the locals know every track of their fields.

I entered Homs on a smugglers’ route, which I promised not to reveal, climbing over walls in the dark and slipping into muddy trenches. Arriving in the darkened city in the early hours, I was met by a welcoming party keen for foreign journalists to reveal the city’s plight to the world. So desperate were they that they bundled me into an open truck and drove at speed with the headlights on, everyone standing in the back shouting “Allahu akbar” — God is the greatest. Inevitably, the Syrian army opened fire.

When everyone had calmed down I was driven in a small car, its lights off, along dark empty streets, the danger palpable. As we passed an open stretch of road, a Syrian army unit fired on the car again with machineguns and launched a rocket-propelled grenade. We sped into a row of abandoned buildings for cover.

The scale of human tragedy in the city is immense. The inhabitants are living in terror. Almost every family seems to have suffered the death or injury of a loved one.

Khaled Abu Salah, an activist who took part in the first demonstrations against Assad in Homs last March, sat on the floor of an office, his hand broken and bandages covering shrapnel wounds to his leg and shoulder.

A 25-year-old university student, who risked his life filming videos of the slaughter of Baba Amr residents, he narrowly escaped when he tried to get two men wounded by mortar fire to a makeshift clinic.

He and three friends had just taken the wounded to the clinic, which was staffed by a doctor and a dentist, and stepped away from the door when “a shell landed right at the entrance”, he recalled last week.

“My three friends died immediately.” The two men they had helped were also killed.

Abu Ammar, 48, a taxi driver, went out to look for bread at 8am one day last week. He, his wife and their adopted daughter had taken refuge with two elderly sisters after their home was hit by shells.

“When I returned the house was obliterated,” he said, looking at all that remained of the one-storey building. Only a few pieces of wall still stood. In the ruins a woman’s red blouse was visible; bottles of home-made pickled vegetables were somehow unscathed. “Dr Ali”, a dentist working as a doctor, said one of the women from the house had arrived at the clinic alive, but both legs had been amputated and she died.

The clinic is merely a first-floor apartment donated by the kindly owner. It still has out-of-place domestic touches: plasma pouches hang from a wooden coat hanger and above the patients a colourful children’s mobile hangs from the ceiling.

The shelling last Friday was the most intense yet and the wounded were rushed to the clinic in the backs of cars by family members.

Ali the dentist was cutting the clothes off 24-year-old Ahmed al-Irini on one of the clinic’s two operating tables. Shrapnel had gashed huge bloody chunks out of Irini’s thighs. Blood poured out as Ali used tweezers to draw a piece of metal from beneath his left eye.

Irini’s legs spasmed and he died on the table. His brother-in-law, who had brought him in, began weeping. “We were playing cards when a missile hit our house,” he said through his tears. Irini was taken out to the makeshift mortuary in a former back bedroom, naked but for a black plastic bag covering his genitals.

There was no let-up. Khaled Abu Kamali died before the doctor could get his clothes off. He had been hit by shrapnel in the chest while at home.

Salah, 26, was peppered with shrapnel in his chest and the left of his back. There was no anaesthetic, but he talked as Ali inserted a metal pipe into his back to release the pressure of the blood building up in his chest.

Helping tend the wounded was Um Ammar, a 45-year-old mother of seven, who had offered to be a nurse after a neighbour’s house was shelled. She wore filthy plastic gloves and was crying. “I’m obliged to endure this, because all children brought here are my children,” she said. “But it is so hard.”

Akhmed Mohammed, a military doctor who defected from Assad’s army, shouted: “Where are the human rights? Do we have none? Where are the United Nations?”

There were only two beds in the clinic for convalescing. One was taken by Akhmed Khaled, who had been injured, he said, when a shell hit a mosque as he was about to leave prayers. His right testicle had had to be removed with only paracetamol to dull the pain.

He denounced the Assad regime’s claim that the rebels were Islamic extremists and said: “We ask all people who believe in God — Christians, Jews, Muslims to help us!”

If the injured try to flee Baba Amr, they first have to be carried on foot. Then they are transferred to motorbikes and the lucky ones are smuggled to safety. The worst injured do not make it.

Though Syrian officials prohibit anyone from leaving, some escapees manage to bribe their way out. I met refugees in villages around Homs. Newlywed Miriam, 32, said she and her husband had decided to leave when they heard that three families had been killed and the women raped by the Shabiha militia, a brutal force led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher.

“We were practically walking on body parts as we walked under shelling overhead,” she said. Somehow they made it unscathed. She had given an official her wedding ring in order to be smuggled out to safety.

Abdul Majid, a computer science student at university, was still shaking hours after arriving in a village outside Homs. He had stayed behind alone in Baba Amr. “I had to help the old people because only the young can get out,” said Majid, 20, wearing a leather jacket and jeans. He left when his entire street fled after every house was hit.

“I went to an army checkpoint that I was told was not too bad. I gave them a packet of cigarettes, two bags of tea and 500 Syrian pounds. They told me to run.”

Blasts of Kalashnikov fire rang out above his head until he reached the tree line. He said the soldiers were only pretending to try to shoot him to protect themselves, but his haunted eyes showed he was not entirely sure.

If the Syrian military rolls into Baba Amr, the FSA will have little chance against its tanks, superior weaponry and numbers. They will, however, fight ferociously to defend their families because they know a massacre is likely to follow any failure, if the past actions of the Assad regime are anything to go by.

The FSA partly relies on defections from Assad’s army because it does not accept civilians into its ranks, though they perform roles such as monitoring troop movements and transporting supplies. But it has become harder for soldiers to defect in the past month.

Abu Sayeed, 46, a major- general who defected six months ago, said every Syrian military unit was now assigned a member of the Mukhabarat, the feared intelligence service, who have orders to execute any soldier refusing an order to shoot or who tries to defect.

The army, like the country, may well be about to divide along sectarian lines. Most of the officers are members of the Alawite sect, the minority Shi’ite clan to which the Assad family belongs, while foot soldiers are Sunni.

The coming test for the army will be if its ranks hold if ordered to kill increasing numbers of their brethren.

The swathe of the country that stretches east from the Lebanon border and includes Homs is Sunni; in the villages there they say that officers ordering attacks are Alawites fighting for the Assad family, not their country.

The morale of Assad’s army, despite its superiority, is said to be low as it is poorly paid and supplied, although this information comes mostly from defectors. “The first thing we did when we attacked the house was race to the refrigerator,” said a defector.

Thousands of soldiers would be needed to retake the southern countryside. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and former president, crushed his problems with Islamic fundamentalists in 1982 by shelling the city of Hama into ruins and killing at least 10,000 men, women and children. So far his son appears to have calculated that a similar act would be a step too far for his remaining allies of Russia, China and Iran.

For now it is a violent and deadly standoff. The FSA is not about to win and its supplies of ammunition are dwindling.

The only real hope of success for Assad’s opponents is if the international community comes to their aid, as Nato did against Muammar Gadaffi in Libya. So far this seems unlikely to happen in Syria.

Observers see a negotiated solution as perhaps a long shot, but the best way out of this impasse. Though neither side appears ready to negotiate, there are serious efforts behind the scenes to persuade Russia to pull Assad into talks.

As international diplomats dither, the desperation in Baba Amr grows. The despair was expressed by Hamida, 30, hiding in a downstairs flat with her sister and their 13 children after two missiles hit their home. Three little girls, aged 16 months to six years, sleep on one thin, torn mattress on the floor; three others share a second. Ahmed, 16, her sister’s eldest child, was killed by a missile when he went to try to find bread.

“The kids are screaming all the time,” Hamida said. “I feel so helpless.” She began weeping. “We feel so abandoned. They’ve given Bashar al-Assad the green light to kill us.”

Loyalties of ‘desert rose’ tested

Asma, the British-born wife of President Bashar al-Assad, may well be feeling a sense of divided loyalty as the violence continues in the Syrian city of Homs. Her family are from the area, which has been a focal point for many of the recent protests against her husband’s regime and the Syrian army’s brutal response.

Despite growing up in Acton, west London, Asma visited her family’s home in Homs every year throughout her childhood. She is also a Sunni Muslim, unlike her husband, who comes from the country’s minority Shi’ite community.

Asma, 36, has been criticised for displaying an “ostrich attitude”, keeping a low profile as the conflict has intensified. She has refused to comment on the way her husband’s regime has used tanks and other lethal means to crush protesters. In an email sent earlier this month, her office merely said: “The first lady’s very busy agenda is still focused on supporting the various charities she has long been involved with as well as rural development and supporting the President as needed.”

The daughter of a consultant cardiologist and a retired diplomat, Asma was born in London. She attended a Church of England state school in Acton and gained a BSc in computer science and a diploma in French literature from King’s College London.

She went on to work for Deutsche Bank and married Assad in Syria in 2000. Now a mother of three, she was once described by Vogue as a “rose in the desert”. In Homs, the beleaguered people may now take a different view.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 22, 2012 at 1:28 pm

Posted in Society, Uncategorized, War

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Arab Spring (One Year Later In Ten Iconic Photos)

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This blog hoped that 2011 be another annus mirabilis for democracy back in January 2011. A year on, let’s look back (literally) as Arab Spring passes into history books. 

By the time the Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali visited Mohamed Bouazizi — the humble fruit vendor whose self-immolation set in motion the events that would culminate in the first successful revolution in the modern Arab World — both men’s fates were already sealed. Ben Ali fled the country less than 3 weeks later.


The next stop of the Arab Spring was in Egypt, the region’s most populous and most influential state. Its  ‘Tank Man’ moment arrived via an amateur photographer who fittingly posted the above photograph on Reddit, a testament to how much social media has changed marketplace of ideas and political discourse.


After a few weeks of political impasse in Tahir Square and of handwringing in many Western capitals, President Mubarak sent in the thugs on camels into the square. The White House finally decided that the Egyptian strongmen needs to step down. He didn’t flee the country but awaits a sentence that might be death.


Meanwhile, the Revolution was brutally  suppressed in Bahrain; Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graced the homepages of major news outlets from the New York Times (Global)/IHT to the Telegraph and the Times of London, from the BBC and Time magazine to Le Nouvel Observateur and El Pais. Much more handwringing ensued over the fate of a critical ally….


But international audience have short memories. After the bloody revolution was quickly suppressed (unlike in Syria and Libya, of which more anon), Bahrain demolished the Pearl Square, the epicenter of the revolutionary movement, in a symbolic move reminiscent of the Roman annihilation of Carthage. Many doctors who helped the wounded protestors were quickly indicted and sometimes killed in the violent crackdown that ensued.


In February 2011, a tone-deaf move that it would come to regret in the coming days and weeks, Vogue profiled the wife of the Syrian dictator Bahir al-Assad as the Rose of the Desert (photographed by James Nachtway no less). In a move that is both pusillanimous and disingenuous, the magazine have removed the article from its website, but the magazine was not alone. As the regimes toppled, more and more embarrassing details (LSE’s Libyan ties, French involvement in Tunisia, CIA and MI6 in Libya and Egypt) came out, revealing the “necessary-evil” nature of these Middle Eastern dictatorships.

I don’t have a protest-related picture from Syria — a metaphor for that country’s hostility towards photographers and journalists, and as an honor to those who are fighting on there.


Perhaps it is not surprising that Libya — which devolved into a full-fledged civil war and the third Arab battlefield for the West in less than a decade — produced the most iconic images of the Arab Spring. By his staunch refusal to step down, Muammar Gaddafi — that umbrella-yielding, youTube meme of a dictator –was determined to fight on and to produce iconic moments till the bitter end. At first, he seemed unassailable, even as the West acted (more or less) quickly to uproot his ramshackle regime. For me, Gaddafi’s beheaded statue and his daughter’s mermaid sofa fittingly bookended a dictator’s life.


In Yemen, the picture is more complex. Its eternal despot, President Saleh is gone, but he left behind a bitterly divided country that (like so many others in the region) seems artificially cobbled together from the carcasses of the long bygone empires. Yemen, with its low productivity caused by energetic qat-chewing, and its dubious honor as the only country in the Middle East without oil-reserves, is on quick route to a civil war or a failed-statehood.


But elsewhere too, in Egypt, in Syria and in Libya, future looks uncertain. In Egypt, the uneasy power struggle between the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the protestors continues. In Syria, difficult times lie ahead for minority Christians and Muslims alike as a full uprising beckons. In Libya, if Gaddafi’s fall was somewhat cathartic, last week’s clashes proved that his malignant legacy is still unfortunately enduring.


A friend told me in January 2011 that Middle East will come to resemble post-1989 Eastern Europe rather than post-1979 Iran. I bet against her for $10, saying that at least Egypt will not be en route to democracy in a year’s time. Should I pay up now? Weight in here and to my Twitter

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

February 3, 2012 at 11:38 pm

Posted in Politics, Society, War

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Two Obituaries

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Last few weeks saw the deaths of two people who were recently featured in Iconic Photos, first a photographer and second a general who made an iconic image possible. 

Died on October 25th was Rashid Talukder, the first Bangladeshi to win Pioneer Photographer Award, aged 72. His photos of the Bangladesh Liberation war in 1971 are considered to be one of the most important photoessays of the century, and his photo of a bodiless head, featured here on IP just two months ago, was a haunting testament to the trying toll of that war.

Another of his famous photos was featured above, when Bangladesh’s founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to his homeland after being released from jail in Pakistan. The photo, taken at historic speech on March 7, 1971, was later selected by the Encyclopaedia on Southeast Asia as one of the seminal moments of Bengal history.

From one successful war of independence to another less successful one: that in Biafra. In 1967, the Igbo — a Christian people in the oil-rich south east part of Nigeria — unilaterally declared their independence from Nigeria. Leading them quixotically was Col. Emeka Ojukwu, who died this week at the age of 78.

The Biafran struggle, for all its lofty goals, was a conflict which should have lasted only weeks, given the overwhelming superiority of the Nigerian federal army and the fact that international governments — seeing the rebellion as a first major challenge to post-colonial borders throughout Africa — weighed in heavily against the rebels. That it lasted for two and a half years was largely due to Ojukwu’s single-mindedness.

Before the Biafrans would capitulate, the Nigerian blockade of Biafra led to a famine and the conflict became imprinted on the international consciousness and conscience, thanks to a handful of British television reports and photographers. By October 1968 several thousand Biafrans, many of them children, were reported to be dying every day, and Don McCullin documented an extreme case of this in an iconic photo featured on this blog before.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

November 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm

James Nachtway on His Work

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James Nachtwey is perhaps the greatest war photographer alive. Adapting Raleigh’s famous judgment on Henry VIII, one might even say that “if all the patterns and pictures of war photographers were lost to the world, they might be painted to the life from James Nachtway.”

He has covered conflicts and major social issues in more than 30 countries. Here, he talks about all the conflicts and tragedies he covered in last four decades.

Written by Alex Selwyn-Holmes

October 28, 2011 at 5:09 am

Posted in Society, War

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