Wars, such as the one between Eritrea and Ethiopia, drag those most vulnerable to misery and loneliness
“Women and children, first!” This sentence, so cinematically used, reveals the great contradiction to our reality. It seems to be an unwritten rule for women and children to have preference during a catastrophe so they can be rescued. But in reality, in current and past conflicts, this group is precisely the most punished. Yes, they are the first, but the first to suffer the cruel consequences of military violence. This violence is in fact a very powerful weapon that the opposing sides use illegally to do more damage to the enemy.
Wars usually last more or less, but their later effects even more. They last for decades. Women and children, due to their vulnerable condition, are the first to suffer a severe and unfair punishment. Sexual attacks, labor exploitation, forced displacement, malnutrition … After each military attack, there is a bitter one on civilians.
In 2008 I was in Wukro, a small village in northern Ethiopia, close to the border with Eritrea. It was eight years after a fratricidal that war broke out between the two countries and killed tens of thousands of people. Eritrea had achieved its independence in the 1990s, but the two governments did not agree where to set a border that for many was practically nonexistent. Finally, in December 2000, peace was signed and a demilitarized area was declared. But the conflict left a lot of young orphans, abandoned elders and single mothers, many ill and infected with AIDS because of the sexual incursions of the soldiers. In Wukro I saw many examples of everything.
Children I met brought me on day at the house of Mehalet Mefazu, a five-year-old girl who became infected with HIV during pregnancy. She became orphan at a very small age and at the mercy of friends and relatives. One of her neighbors was Ameta Gebru, an octogenarian who was left alone after the war. All her relatives had disappeared and she had remained blind, deaf and invalid. Ironies of the postwar period, the orphan and seropositive Mehalet became one of the people who took care of the old woman. She used to to visit her every day, while adults were responsible for the toughest jobs, such as helping her dress, eat and even go to the latrines.
The portrait of the little Mehalet and Mrs. Ameta had to be in a single click. I wanted to capture the live representation of the postwar vulnerabilities in a one image, which also had to have low light. In the privacy of their house, in a well-contrasted black and white and with the girl in the foreground to give, in a way, the optimism of a desirable future better. Who knows? Perhaps now, eleven years later, she is still attending the school, preparing herself to access the university and become the doctor who will attend the most vulnerable of the next wars.
A room full of humanity
In Africa, there is no debate about having children sleeping with parents at night
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
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
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.
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.