Author: Albert Gonzalez Farran

A room full of humanity

In Africa, there is no debate about having children sleeping with parents at night

Ten displaced children lay down in one of the rooms owned by a relative in Yambio, South Sudan, in January 2017. Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran – UNICEF

When a boy or girl is born in Barcelona, Berlin, New York or Sydney, most families start a debate about when is the best time to separate the baby from the parents at night. Many agree that, after six months, the child should get used to sleeping in his bed or even having his own room, leaving the parents free to redo their relationship as a couple. Other more radicals do it before six months, and others even more radical execute it with drastic methods, like the one that advises leaving the baby to cry until she obviously falls asleep from fatigue. Other mothers and fathers of these western societies, which according to studies do not reach 15%, dare to sleep with sons and daughters until very a advanced age. They do it while they are still breastfeeding or even while they are comfortable together into the sheets.
But in most of the world, throughout Africa, in Asia and in the rural areas of South America, this debate is practically non-existent. It is assumed that they sleep together. For natural reasons and since prehistoric times, families have always shared the night space. But also, in many other cases, there is not even an alternative. The lack of space and the high birth rate always force them to sleep together. Sometimes, the situation reaches extreme scenes that many would describe as distressing.
In a cold morning in winter of 2017, I visited a family in Yambio, South Sudan. They gave me permission to go at dawn, just when they began to wake up, to show the situation in which they lived. They opened the door of one of the shelters they had at home and showed me the magnitude of their existence. An adult woman was sleeping on a proper bed, while nine children were tight on the floor, covered with old and dirty sheets. It was cold and the contact of their bodies seemed to give them mutual warmth.
The situation in the city of Yambio, due to the civil war, was at that time unsustainable. Clashes in neighboring villages had pushed more than 4,000 people to take refuge in homes of relatives and friends in the city. The displacement by the conflict was causing the abandonment of the towns and the saturation of Yambio. And that room was another example of what was happening.
When they opened the door for me, the first rays of sunlight made open the lazy eyes of the children still sleepy. I will not deny it; they had been waiting for me since the night before and when they saw me holding the camera, they were not surprised. In fact, they showed a very gentle face. They did not seem to have anguish about having to sleep so tight, they did not even seem annoyed, not even a little embarrassed to find themselves in that situation before a strange photographer. Rather, those who woke up offered me the freshness of those eyes that have slept well, close to the human warmth of their own.

Victim of a mass execution

In rural Peru, justice is applied popularly by a mixture of ancestral tradition and an reaction to corruption

Olga Apaza’s husband was killed by an infuriated group of traders during a night of 2009 in Juliaca, Peru. © Albert Gonzalez Farran

Juliaca is a city at the Peruvian Andes, very close to the border with Bolivia. There, the Inca and Aymara culture survives in spite of the of centuries and the colonization. Many ancestral traditions of Indians who have lived from primitive times remain active, both good and skinny. One of them is the mass justice, a practice that is mostly applied to ordinary criminals when they have been caught on the spot.
In 2009, I met Olga Apaza, a 48-year-old woman who lost her husband Hugo, executed by the crowd one morning in July. I did not find out if Hugo was or not a criminal, but I did know that he was the driver of the popular taxi-tricycles and he used to earn just over six US dollars per day by carrying people up and down the streets of Juliaca. One night, he disappeared. The next day, they found him dead in the street with a disfigured face and dozens of fractures throughout the body. According to witnesses, dozens of people who accused him of attempting to steal in the market, nudged him, tied him to a pole and punched him until he stopped breathing. He was “lucky” not to be burned alive, as it had happened in many other cases.
As they said, police could not do anything to stop the angry mass. There were few agents and dozens of violent traders “impossible to stop,” they said. And Olga became a widow with a broken tricycle and a family to mantain. “My husband was innocent, I know for sure,” she said crying while I took a picture in her house, right next to the tricycle and holding a portrait of her husband. Her home was very basic, as much as her clothing and the way she expressed her grief. A contained, serene and sober pain, without avoiding tears.
Maybe her husband stole something from the market, or maybe he tried to take the money from a shop. Maybe he did it for the family or who knows if he did it to buy alcohol. But it was clear, when I was photographing that unhappy woman, that this kind of Andean justice is cruel and ruthless.
The ancient Inca principles first preaches Amu Sua (do not be a thief), in the second, Ama Llulla (do not be liar), and finally, Ama Quella (do not be weak). I do not know if it is preached by this order of importance, but it is a millennial cultural legacy that is still practiced in a stron way. The punishments are bloody. As much, as in 2007, a man whom people forced to take his own son and hang him, accused of being part of a band of thieves. Often, days after the execution, it is known that the condemned was innocent, confused by someone else.
In Peru, the level of corruption is very high and it also reached the judicial institutions. People have stopped trusting judges and the prisons system, so have decided to take a move.
Last month, former Peruvian President Alan Garcia committed suicide shooting his head at home, few hours before being arrested for a case of corruption. It is tragicomic to think, obviously out of context, that the politician did not want to end up like that mayor of a lost town in the Andes that in 2006 was also beaten up to death by his neighbors for alleged corruptions.

Gleaners in Los Andes
A “Pallaquera” (a woman who collects stones thrown from the mines looking for gold) at work in La Rinconada, Ananea, Peru. Photo by Albert González Farran.

Women risk their lives for a few gold crumbs outside the Peruvian mines of La Rinconada

French filmmaker Agnès Varda died on March 29 at her home in Paris. He was 90 years old and, from her filmography, what captivated me the most was the documentary Las glaneurs te la glaneuse (The Gleaners and I, in the English version). Released in 2000, the film is a formidable tribute to all those garbage collectors, those who work in the dirt looking for something useful among what people throw, those who pick up the crumbs from the wildest exploitations. It is the last step of our society. Originally, a gleaner was who, with the farmer’s permission, collected the grain that remained after the harvest. It was a hard and tenacious work that the rural tradition has left us. Now, the meaning has widened and we see gleaners all over the world and in different ways.

I saw some very special ones in La Rinconada, a remote village in Los Andes in Peru, at an altitude of 6,000 meters. There, they are called pallaqueras, from the Peruvian word that refers to those people who work outside the mines, where the extraction machines dump the rubble. At hundreds of meters of dangerous unevenness, pallaqueras rush to look for stones with some crumbs of gold.

The position of a pallaquera, like a gleaner, is one of extreme humility. On her knees or even lying on the ground, she gets dirty from head to feet and exposes herself to the imminent danger of being buried by an avalanche of rocks. Under the inclemency of the weather, with the hands destroyed by the cold, the humidity and the hardness of the mineral, they spend the day “gleaning” what the miners reject. And sometimes they have some pretty surprises in the form of gold. They drink a lot of alcohol and smoke daily packets to warm up and chew coca leaves to better withstand the low pressures and lack of oxygen.

Pallaqueras are nearly all women. Many, old women. And in La Rinconada there is still a great gender unbalance. While women risk their lives for a few miserable grams of gold, men are the only ones officially hired by the companies and authorized to enter the mines to earn a good pinch if the extraction has been lucky. Some male miners have accumulated great fortunes. And many, especially the younger ones, waste a good part of the benefits right there on alcohol and prostitutes. La Rinconada, before the “gold rush”, was a quiet village that has turned into a serious urban, social and environmental chaos.

Pallaqueras, however, are well organized. Their task has been professionalized so much that there is already a hierarchy among them: above all, there is the responsible for selecting those who can work in their area, there are those who carry a whistle to alert her colleagues if there is an imminent spill of mineral, there are those who cook, and the one who builds the latrines, and that one in charge of first aid… Pallaqueras are a proof of resilience of a social stratum of mining that started in a very precarious way and now it is not only accepted, but even respected by the big mining companies and by the Peruvian society in general.

The window to a piece of heaven

Mahmud saved his life on a shaggy boat in the Mediterranean. But his desire to try again persisted.

Mahmud Abdul, 17 years old, looks through the window at his bedroom Shobra Sandy, Egypt. © Albert González Farran, IOM

I met Mahmud when he was 17 years old. It was on morning in October when I met him wandering outside Shobra Sandy, a lost village in the north of Cairo, Egypt. Now Mahmud, if everything went well, must be 21. Perhaps he still survives in the village with poorly paid jobs; maybe he is in an European city; and perhaps, if he was very lucky, he is with his relatives in France. But he may also have had bad luck crossing again the Mediterranean.

That morning of October, Mahmud explained to me the second opportunity that life had given him months ago. The Red Cross rescued him when the boat with which he left Alexandria was shipwrecked near the coasts of Thessalonica, Greece. But he also admited he wanted to try once more, or maybe as many times as necessary, to get out from the hole he believed in. As friends and relatives constantly sent him messages from France explaining the magnificent things that happen there, he did not want to miss them either.

On that first failed trip by the sea, Mahmud’s family paid nearly $ 3,000. Mahmud risked his life in a broken ship, loaded with 500 passengers, when it had capacity for only a hundred. The organizers of the trip, he remembers, were armed and under the effects of drugs. He couldn’t refuse to jump in. They had promised a trip to Italy, but instead they changed their direction to Greece. On the way, already on the high seas, a handful of passengers died, who were thrown into the water as they stopped breathing. But neither did the boat endure the overweight. It sank a few miles from the coast.

Once detained in Thessalonica by the Greek authorities, and due to his status of an unaccompanied child, the UN facilitated his return to Shobra Sandy, to go back to the tasks on his father’s farm and save for a new attempt. “Life is boring here, every day is the same,” he complains by showing the room that he shared with his three brothers. From that poorly-ordered room, full of socks and untidy mattresses, Mahmud glanced at the window. The lower half was covered by the wall of the neighbor’s house, raised just a few meters from his. But in the upper half, a blue and glittering sky was showing up. It was the same sky that he saw while drifting along the Mediterranean and the same that welcomed him in Greece. Surely it is also the same sky as there is in France.

I asked him to freeze, to keep looking at the sky through that window, to take a very relevant portrait for a project on immigrants in Egypt. The soft light on his face gave him an appearance of irrational hope. At that moment, I was convinced he would cross again the sea and he would put his life in risk for his piece of heaven.

Playing with fire

Suleiman, a ten-year-old boy from Darfur, looks like an old man. The war made him an old man

Suleiman Fatul Saim (10 years old), from Dar Al Salam, North Darfur, poses for the photographer at home in April 2013. Photo by Albert González Farran, UNAMID

Suleiman was only four years old when he was walking with his brother Musa at the outskirts of Dar al Salam, north of Darfur, Sudan. It was in November 2006, one night when his favourite football team won an important championship match. Both brothers wanted to celebrate that victory with their friends. In secret, they kept a strange object they had found not far from home. It was a lost explosive from the Darfur civil war, which by chance had not yet detonated. And they, still in secret, couldn’t wait to make a great fight with that projectile. Musa, the elder brother, was in charge of setting fire to it and everything changed tragically. The output was not what they expected. One of his best friends died. And Suleiman, like others, suffered burns all over the body.

I met Suleiman six years after that accident. He had moved with his family to El Fasher, a larger city with better medical attention. And when I entered to his house, the boy ran to hide behind his father’s legs. With a bitter smile, the man explained his son was no longer the same since that explosion. He was ashamed to show his face. And he had reasons. When he discovered himself, he looked like a very old and tired man. He kept his gaze always on the ground, due to the shame.

Suleiman was one of the main characters of a report I was producing on the consequences of the war in Darfur. And the most serious is the large number of weapons (bombs, bullets, grenades and mines) abandoned around still to detonate. The fact is that militias and soldiers did not have enough with looting and chasing civilians, they also left their ‘shit’ scattered all over. So the main victims of their random detonations were boys and girls, who thought they had found a treasure on the sand.

The interview to Suleiman was hard. He barely answered my questions. I tried to convince him about the importance of the report to warn others about post-war problems in Darfur, but I had to pull his words with much patience. I could know that he still had motivation to study and move forward, although he will always regret to have fired that artefact.

And when I got closer to him with my camera to take a portrait, two hands from his face, he raised the eyes and looked directly to the camera. It seemed he was saying with his eyes: “yes, look at me, I am like that, so what?” Just after the portrait, Suleiman lowered his eyes again and went back to his embarrassment. For a few seconds, I got a a convincing and confident look. A very brave look.

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