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.

The smell of death and the wig
I have always wondered what the smell of death is like. And it became unmistakable to me, when I had not seen the corpse yet.
A soldier with a bazooka performs a moment of victory in the trenches of Lilo, South Sudan. Photo © Albert González Farran / AFP

It is not easy to describe it, but it is to identify it. The smell of death is like a dark room, locked for a long time. When you open it, the smell comes to you suddenly and punches you into the stomach. In the trenches of South Sudan, where the war loses all the humanity is left, that smell showed me intense emotions.

It was at the outskirts of a village called Lilo, at the north of the country, where government troops and factions from the opposition were fighting for few meters of land. That day, soldiers of the regular army celebrated a macabre victory over a small group of rebels who got lost close to the enemy positions. They were already dead for days when the South Sudanese Government invited journalists to visit the front-line, to show that the recapture of those positions was not just military propaganda.

Shortly after dropping off the helicopter, photographers and TV cameras could capture dozens of bodies, scattered strategically. Victims wore down pants as post-mortem humiliation. The commanders indicated their penises, swollen by the decomposition, with stirring gestures of cruel happiness. Some journalists responded to those jokes with smiles moved by fear.

The staging was intended for the press as the final scene of a very bad movie. On one side, the dead all abandoned between stones and bushes. On the other, the winners sang for their lives from the trenches, as if the combat had ended just at that moment.

One of the victorious soldiers hold a bazooka with the theatrical intention to shoot again when he received the order. He shouted from his position, with eyes injected by the blood of his victims, while his fellow warmen laughed like fools. And on the head he wore a wig. A woman’s wig.

In South Sudan, as in most parts of Africa, wigs are a very popular article in the markets. Women have at least one at home. The most fortunate, they keep a whole collection: blonde, brunette, smooth, curly, short and long. A wig for every occasion.

South Sudan became independent in 2011, but a civil war broke out just two years later. The conflict has taken thousands of victims and a large part of them have been women of all ages who, due to their sexual condition, have suffered the worst part. Beaten, raped, humiliated, enslaved and murdered, many women from South Sudan have not been able to wear their wigs again because of an stupid war. And that soldier of the bazooka wore a woman’s wig with a fanfare. The wig was already dirty and awkward. Nobody dared to ask who he had taken it from

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