In 2011, Yuri Kozyrev traveled to seven countries covering protests and uprisings for TIME, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Russia, Greece and Tunisia. Here, he writes about the remarkable experience and what all the revolutions had in common.
It’s unique that I’ve been able to cover all these uprisings and revolutions during the year. I’m lucky—it’s incredibly complicated to understand where you need to go when you’re on the ground, and I was lucky to have a lot of help. The protests were well under way when I got to Tahrir Square in late January, and their size and scope took my breath away: in two decades of covering the Middle East, I had never encountered anything like this. There was huge fighting between the pro-government supports and revolutionaries. Some of the journalists were beaten. Some of them lost their cameras. They kicked me out, but I managed to get back in the next morning. I saw a lot of families—not just young men or revolutionaries—and everyone was helping each other, praying together. It was a great time. Everybody was waiting for Mubarak to make the right decision, and suddenly it happened. And it was so emotional: people crying, shouting, screaming…it was incredible. The next morning, it was over. The army was kicking everyone out. They weren’t friendly—there was a feeling of ‘You got what you wanted. Now, get out.’ Of all the revolutions I covered, Egypt was the most special.
The mood at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain was very different from Tahrir Square. In the first days, I saw men in white robes approach police with flowers, offerings of peace: the response was tear-gas and live rounds. There was a huge difference between this army and the Egyptian army. People from Bahrain—there was no way they could even talk to the army who had arrived from Saudi Arabia. There was no way for me to get to Pearl Square, so a few journalists and I watched what was happening from the hotel. There was one hospital where all the protesters were gathered together. And then the doctors did something incredible. Not all of them supported the protesters, but they gave them shelter at the hospital and saved a lot of lives. I had a chance to go back to Bahrain after they demolished Pearl Square, and again a few weeks ago, and I saw young people who’d lost one eye to rubber bullets. It was just so sad, and I just saw some of them. I know there were many more.
In Yemen, it was very different. There was no Facebook. Change Square was still packed, but the feeling of revolution was more religious, more conservative. There was an invisible border for protesters to stay behind, and the army would shoot anyone who tried to cross this line. I saw so many young people were ready to cross the line, marching to die. And around Change Square, there were hundreds of pictures of people who’d died. In Egypt, I saw protest signs and other things, but in Yemen, it was just pictures of young faces. Whether or not President Saleh will relinquish power, the political crisis in Yemen will likely remain acute, not only because of its tribal culture and topography, but also because of its deep poverty, high illiteracy and birth rates, and deeply entrenched government corruption.
Libya was different because it was more of a civil war than a revolution. It was here that I took one of my favorite pictures of the year. It was taken on the front lines near Ras Lanuf, Libya. It was near an oil refinery factory that was important for both sides—both the rebels and government. I took this picture on March 11, when Gaddafi's military could still fly, and they were flying around, dropping bombs on the rebels. It was really scary for everybody on the front lines—suddenly, you could hear the plane coming and the bombs hitting their targets. These men were the shabab, young people who weren't professional fighters and didn't have weapons or training. They're not rebels, but eager to be on the front lines. They're jumping because they heard the planes coming, so they're running around trying to find any place to hide, which is hard because everything is flat and exposed. You can see from the picture that none of them have any weapons—they were scared—and it was just an incredible experience to be there.
Beyond these main four revolutions, I also traveled to cover the protests in Moscow, Greece and Tunis. I came to the conclusion that each revolution must be assessed in its own context, because each had a distinctive impact. The drama of each revolution unfolded separately. Each had its own heroes, its own crises. Each, therefore, demands its own narrative. In the end, the differences between them may turn out to be more important than their similarities, however. And the common thing about all these protests is the number of young people who really want to bring changes to their country. That’s what’s most incredible. We have a new generation of people who are sick and tired of what’s going on. Call it the Jasmine Revolution, the Arab Spring or the Facebook Revolution, there’s a powerful Sirocco blowing across the world, and young people realize there’s another life and they want to live differently.
Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME who has covered the Arab Spring since January.