Syria’s Agony: The Photographs That Moved Them Most

3 minute read

Syria has always been a tough place to cover for journalists. Confidently authoritarian with a ruthlessly formidable security and intelligence apparatus, Syria has long been one of the most policed of Arab police states. So when some Syrians defied their government to take to the streets in the southern city of Dara‘a in March 2011, the temptation to cover the story was overwhelming for many, including myself.

The story of the Syrian uprising is ultimately the tale of regular citizens silencing the policeman in their heads, breaking their own personal barriers of fear to speak, to demonstrate, to demand, to reject, to no longer be afraid, to live in dignity. It’s about what these people will do, what they will endure, and what they are prepared to become to achieve their aims.

It is also the story of a significant portion of the population that considers the regime of President Bashar Assad the country’s best option, because they believe in its Baathist secular ideology or directly benefit from its patronage or don’t have confidence in Assad’s opponents and fear what may come next. Understanding what this segment of the population will accept in terms of state violence, the narratives they choose to believe and their concerns is a critical component of the story, though one that is harder to obtain, given the paucity of press visas issued by Damascus.

The only way to tell the Syrian story, really tell it, is to be on the ground with the men, women and children who are central to it, whether in Syria on in the neighboring states that many Syrians have fled to. It isn’t easy to do — the Committee to Protect Journalists, based in New York City, has dubbed Syria the “most dangerous place for journalists in the world” — but it is essential. Nothing beats being there. There is no compensating for seeing, feeling, touching, capturing, living the story.

The images here are a testament to the power of being on the ground, of sharing and capturing a moment for posterity, of translating an element of a person’s life through imagery.

Take a look at the photos. Can you place yourself in these situations? Can you imagine what it must be like? What do you feel when you look at the images? Are you drawn into them, or are you repulsed? Can you relate to them, or are they too alien? This is the power of translating on-the-ground reporting to an audience. This is why we must and will continue to document the Syrian uprising from inside the country when we can, and we — members of the foreign press corps — are not alone. Sadly, as is often the case, local journalists (both professional and citizen) have disproportionately borne the brunt of the casualties in this crisis. Still, this story is not about members of the media and what we go through to tell it; it’s about the Syrians who entrust their testimonies, their experiences, their hopes, their fears, their images to us in the hope that they will help explain what is happening in one of the most pivotal states in the Middle East.

—Rania Abouzeid

This collection of testimonies is the third in a series by TIME documenting iconic images of conflict. See “9/11: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” and “Afghanistan: The Photographs That Moved Them Most” for more.

Abouzeid is a Middle East correspondent for TIME. Reporting by Vaughn Wallace.

Tomás Munita "I was in Syria for three days at the end of January for the New York Times on a journalist visa. On my last day, we visited the town of Rankous in the mountains, not far from Damascus. We were taken by rebel fighters to their commander. As we started talking, tanks took positions in the nearby hills and the fighting began. I remember their hopeless faces as they knew they couldn't hold on for long. They were brave, looking at their commander and waiting for a brilliant move, but they knew that unless the whole country stood up at the same time, they would be easily overrun. A soldier was hit by a sniper in his leg. He was fainting as he was carried by friends who didn't know where to take him. They were obviously not prepared, but they were there waiting for the army to move in. Fleeing would mean death — they were defectors. A couple of days later, we learned that the town was taken and the commander was killed along with his young son and several fighters." Tomás Munita—The New York Times/Redux / Jan. 28, 2012
Paul Conroy "This picture was taken on the first full day that Marie Colvin and I spent in Bab Amr. Even getting to the field hospital had been a high-speed journey, dodging snipers and mortar rounds. When we stopped, the driver of our vehicle laughed and told us to follow him and run like hell. As we ran, mortars exploded around us and bullets cracked against the walls. We were dragged inside the field hospital, which was calm compared to outside. After about 10 minutes, we heard screaming, and the team went into action. There was never a moment of panic in the field hospital; it was routine for them. We saw them bring in the dead, the critically wounded and those with a chance of life. They would treat the wounded, clean the dead, and the whole process would begin again. It was relentless." Conroy was seriously wounded four days later in an attack that killed Colvin and Rémi Ochlik and seriously injured Edith Bouvier. Paul Conroy / Feb. 18, 2012
Alessio Romenzi A mother and her children cry over the loss of two of her sons, who were killed in a mortar attack launched by Assad forces in Homs province. "So far, most of the killing in Syria — maybe 90% — has been innocent civilians. This is an example of that. When you realize that people like this are dying, sure that they're not guilty of anything, you realize how bad it can be. It was just a family sitting in their house. I think that, so far, journalists are the only chance that Syria has. We just try to make as much noise as possible."Alessio Romenzi for TIME / Feb. 20, 2012
Rémi Ochlik Residents of Bouyada village pray at the 3 a.m. funeral of four young men who died after being crushed in their home during a shelling by Assad forces. Funerals often take place in the middle of the night to avoid attacks by the army. "For those who knew Rémi well, it’s strange to see that one of his very last pictures, if not the ultimate one, is of a funeral. You can’t help but see a symbol in it. He took this photo of four slain people stuck in the same coffin, and a few hours later he himself was killed by a shell. He didn’t even get a coffin; it took days to recover his body amid the intense fighting in Homs. Rémi had something very serious and thorough about the way he took his pictures. He’d been wanting to get into Syria for months. When he finally got inside, near the town of Zabadani, it was simply too dangerous to make any good images. He managed to squeeze out through the border, back into Lebanon. And then straight away, he wanted to go back, to make stronger images. He crossed into the al-Qusayr area, where he took this last photo. A few hours later, he got into Homs in the black of night. He wrote us an e-mail to describe how incredibly tense and confused it was in the besieged Bab Amr neighborhood. The e-mail was bleak, but he concluded, 'I plan to start taking photos first thing tomorrow morning.' That never happened." —Alfred de Montesquiou, senior correspondent for Paris MatchRémi Ochlik—IP3 / Feb. 21, 2012
William Daniels "During my nine days in Syria and five days in the besieged Bab Amr district, I worked a total of less than three hours. Just after the tragic shelling of the media center on our first day, I didn't feel like a photographer anymore — just a human who wanted to save his life. I couldn't touch my cameras anymore. I felt like they were responsible for the situation we were in and of the death of our friend and colleague. This picture was shot during one of the rare and short moments during which I became a photographer again. The shelling stopped for a couple of hours, which never really happened during the day. We used this opportunity to cross the quarter by car to see Rémi's and Marie's bodies and collect some of their belongings that we couldn't get before. I shot dozens of pictures from the car. When we passed this place, we drove very fast in fear of the snipers. This is how Bab Amr was at that time. Buildings disemboweled by shelling, an atmosphere of the end of the world."William Daniels—Panos for TIME / Feb. 24, 2012
Moises Saman "I remember it was a clear, cold night. The moon was the only source of light in this secret section of the Orontes River demarcating the border between Syria's Idlib province and Turkey. Standing by the riverbed on the Turkish side, the scene had an air of eerie calm — not a sound other than insects and the faraway roar of a vehicle on a Syrian road. Then suddenly I saw two lights and heard the sound of a tractor approaching the Syrian side. Minutes later, the faint sight of a canoe slowly crossing the river toward me, in it a Syrian smuggler carrying a young couple and their baby girl away from the war in Syria and into safety. Looking back, I can't help but think about the many phases that this conflict has endured. From the peaceful protests of the early months to the violent repression from the regime to armed resistance to all-out civil war. The country is disintegrating in slow motion before the eyes of the world."Moises Saman—Magnum / March 2, 2012
Rodrigo Abd "I remember that we were in a stronghold — a liberated area in Idlib — for the Free Syrian Army. During the funeral, we started feeling that the situation was getting worse minute by minute. All the people there were mourning their father, but also, they really believed they were going to be the next targets. There was a lot of tension because the rebels knew the army was coming and that they didn't have the weapons and organization to fight against them. I asked them, 'Where are you going? Do you have any plans to escape?' They replied, 'There is no place to go. We live here, we were born here, we are going to stay here until the end.' We are journalists. In a way, we have a privilege of covering the story, but at the same time, we know we can get out. You can see the villagers — they are stuck there. They are in the middle of the fight. They will kill Syrian army soldiers, or they will die. Anything that happens to us is nothing compared to the Syrian people. We try to do what we can, but the Syrian people are really suffering."Rodrigo Abd—AP / March 8, 2012
Giorgos Moutafis "Shortly after entering al-Shatouria village, I met a group of FSA fighters in a grove of olive trees. There were about 10 men — just three of them were armed. They told me that they were planning on going back to the mountains close to the Turkish borders until they could better reorganize. I felt their depressed psychology and could sense their disappointment. Suddenly, one of them climbed up on his horse, holding his gun, and posed proudly in front of me." Giorgos Moutafis / March 16, 2012
Seamus Murphy "We were leaving Syria, navigating our way through the end-of-day murk near the Turkish border. We were halted at this point by a horseman, a rebel scout, as he went off to find out if we were expected along the pass. When he whistled for us to proceed, we noticed he had a little brazier burning, dug into the earth. Enough to keep him warm but sufficiently buried to be safe from detection. It had been a short stay in Syria, just three days, but we felt the passion of the resistance and its determination to overthrow Assad. On a more recent trip, we learned that the momentum continues — that the opposition's resolve is unshaken. All the people we spoke to said they could never go back to how it was, not after what they had been through. Assad was over, they said. It was a question of time."Seamus Murphy—VII / March 27, 2012
Hussein Malla "As a photojournalist, I was always determined to cover the events in Syria, and went to the Lebanon-Syria border several times. During my last trip, in late May, I was doing a feature about Syrian refugees and suddenly saw a van drop an injured man at the entrance of the Lebanese Red Cross point. The injured man was shot in the leg and was screaming, 'Go to the river! There are more injured people!' A few minutes later, another van came with two Syrian women, one with neck injuries and one carrying her injured son. The family were shot at by Syrian border guards as they crossed the river. I chose this picture because it represents a big part of the suffering that the Syrian people are being subjected to every day. I am always determined to go back to cover the misery in Syria. I covered the Syrian uprising when it started in March 2011. I was in the southern city of Dara'a, where the uprising started, and was later briefly detained and beaten up by pro-government gunmen in the coastal city of Latakia. Later I was ordered by Syrian authorities to leave the country, and I was rejected twice when I applied for a journalist visa." Hussein Malla—AP / May 30, 2012
Robert King "This image acts as a reminder of courage and strength, illustrated in the actions of the doctor. Dr. Kasem is a gastroenterologist who is labeled a terrorist by Assad's regime for honoring one of history's oldest binding documents, the Hippocratic oath, while treating six children wounded by heavy artillery and tank fire."Robert King—Polaris / June 8, 2012
Kate Brooks "A couple of days after I arrived in Damascus, I photographed a series of military funerals — 42 in total. Eight more men remained in cool storage at Tishreen Military Hospital for the next ceremonial conveyer belt. I can't claim to know what the man in white gloves was thinking when I took this frame, but he appears worried and concerned, as are all Syrians, about the number of coffins stacking up and what the future holds. When I was in Syria in June, I was told 100 soldiers and officers were dying each week in the conflict. To put that into perspective, at that rate, over the past year more soldiers may have died in combat in Syria than American soldiers in Iraq over a nine-year period. In considering the tally of this ongoing conflict, it's important to remember that military service is mandatory for all Syrian men."Kate Brooks / June 23, 2012
Marcel Mettelsiefen "After nine days in the besieged city of Rastan, we managed to leave. A well-organized chain of activists would get us from safe house to safe house. We ended up in a car with Ubaid Darish Laban, a heavily injured regime opponent, as it raced as fast as possible to the Turkish border. After 40 kilometers, he died in the car, so we detoured to his village close to Rastan. We attended the funeral as helicopters buzzed overhead and then continued out of the country. It was a disturbing last day in Syria."Marcel Mettelsiefen—Der Spiegel / July 17, 2012
Niklas Meltio "Very few still live in Salah al-Din, a poor neighborhood that became the front line during the battle of Aleppo — a death zone. I took this photo during the hardest fight I came across there. The rebels in the picture are trying to take out a tank behind the corner, while regime snipers occupy a building farther down the road." Niklas Meltio–Corbis / Aug. 4, 2012
Nicole Tung "This image was shot shortly after an air strike in Bustan al-Qasr, a neighborhood in Aleppo. The second of three bombs had hit this one particular house, killing at least eight people — five of whom were children under the age of 15, all from the same family. I was standing half a block away when it hit, and the ensuing chaos was heartbreaking. War is war, but what is beyond comprehension is when children die. The youngest, Youssef, was barely two years old, and he was completely limp, lifeless. For no reason, really. The rawness of witnessing children being pulled from rubble is something that one cannot digest. I keep coming back to this image to try and understand what it's all about, but there are no answers."Nicole Tung / Aug. 6, 2012
Bryan Denton "According to the FSA commander, Abu Hilal was an infamous member of the shabiha in Aleppo — ghosts in Arabic, the term given to Assad's paramilitary forces. The rebels claimed that Hilal was notorious in Aleppo, claiming he'd murdered or assisted in the killing of six people and raping a female student at Aleppo's university. I wanted to ask Hilal about this at the time, but he was so mentally damaged from torture that you could have told him the sky was yellow and he would have agreed. I made this picture as he began to cower when more rebels piled into the room to view their prize: a member of the regime's hated shabiha. Later in the night, I was kicked awake and told to come outside. In the back of the dark compound, I saw a large flatbed truck. As I looked closer, I realized it was a massive truck bomb — maybe 400 kg or more, covered with recently clipped pine branches. I pondered the operation and couldn't figure out how they were going to get the truck to their target, one of the last Syrian army checkpoints north of Aleppo. I suddenly realized the rebels' plan — to make Hilal drive the truck to the checkpoint after convincing him he was going to be traded in a prisoner exchange. I have seen numerous people die in battle, in hospitals from wounds in combat. It can be sad and traumatic, but there is a certain contract that fighters understand in battle — you kill or be killed. For me, though, this was different. I was watching a premeditated murder by rebels I shared food with and laughed with. They were not Islamist boogeymen. They were real estate agents, accountants, students, defected soldiers and nurses. And now they were deceiving and murdering a man who had already surrendered. The rebels later returned to the compound with downcast eyes. The bomb had failed to detonate remotely and Assad's forces had captured Hilal. I have never heard any accounts of what happened to him, though I imagine showing up to a regime checkpoint with a giant bomb is probably a surefire way to get executed. I am reminded by this about the nature of war — it's ability to make decent people with a noble and just cause capable of absolutely terrible things, mutating them through pain and desperation." Bryan Denton—The New York Times/Redux / Aug. 14, 2012
Goran Tomasevic "I like these pictures where some fighters took up positions in a family living room. One rebel sat on the chair eating a chocolate bar as the commander looked out the window to scout the area beside a rebel firing from the window. They told me it was a former Syrian army position and they had killed three soldiers in the house — I could see a track of blood in the corridor. There was no one else in the house except the rebels."Goran Tomasevic—Reuters / Aug. 15, 2012
Edouard Elias Wounded civilians are seen in a field hospital in Aleppo after an air strike destroyed a bakery, killing 20 and injuring 80. "I shot this on the night of Aug. 21. A bakery had been bombed, and cars carried the wounded civilians to Dar al-Shifa Hospital. It was a difficult moment, working among the wounded and dead. It was my first war, and I had the responsibility to make pictures at this moment, even if I wouldn't go inside the hospital. Looking back at the picture, I remember how I felt sitting outside the hospital with my emotions, near tears. When fighters were wounded, I understood — it's war. But civilian boys, children, women ... it wasn't the same feeling."Edouard Elias—Getty Images / Aug. 21, 2012
Aris Messinis "An FSA fighter tries to calm down a wounded child after his house, which was about 100 meters from the hospital, was hit by a helicopter's rocket. The boy was carried to the hospital by neighbors and, after the first treatment, was moved to the reception area. With dozens of civilian casualties that afternoon by air strikes, many of them children in worse conditions, the hospital was running out of space. The boy was standing there alone, so the fighter stayed with the boy until other members of his family arrived at the hospital to pick him up. Covering the impact of war on nonfighting civilians — receiving the consequences of it without even participating — is of a much greater importance than the proper war-news coverage. When there are people experiencing these situations, the least you can do is inform the world about these changes on their lives and present realities — changes that could be unimaginable to others." Aris Messinis—AFP/Getty Images / Aug. 24, 2012
Zac Baillie "I had been living and shooting with the units in this area for quit a while, and an attack had been planned for a few days. Around 30 minutes before this shot was taken, a force of around 30 to 50 rebels attempted to take the building by force. I was on the street with them. The road was covered by at least three snipers and a heavy machine gun. Four lives were lost in five minutes. Unable to storm the building and cross the road, the rebels resorted to gathering as many bottles as they could find, mixing benzine and polystyrene on the spot. With the help of several homemade pipe-bomb grenades, they attempted to smoke out the government forces. This lit the building on fire, creating a huge plume of smoke and making a perfect target for Assad's artillery. It was some of the heaviest artillery fire I have experienced, and it caught all the fighters completely unaware. As we evacuated the building, a shell landed less than 15 meters away, throwing us all against the wall and taking the leg of the fighter standing next to me. I was hit in the face and arm — only superficially — and at least two fighters died during the heavy artillery barrage."Zac Baillie—AFP/Getty Images / Aug. 29, 2012
Marco Longari "It was shortly after I traveled to Aleppo that I went trying to photograph at a checkpoint in the old city. By mid-morning, I saw this man. He approached an FSA checkpoint. Gunfire, although sporadic, was directed at everyone trying to cross the street. He arrived, bags of groceries in hand, dignified. A civil servant, a teacher — an ordinary Syrian taking care of his family's needs. When I saw him there hesitating, I thought of what would have been his days in normal times. My mind quickly went to Sarajevo's 'sniper alley' — the lines of civilians buying bread and then gunned down by the Serbian positions in the mountains. As he approached the passage, I lifted the camera. He lept forward, exposing himself to the sniper's fire. I took 10 frames — one for each step that brought him safely to the other side."Marco Longari—AFP/Getty Images / Sept. 14, 2012
Sebastiano Tomada "I don't think the child in this photo knew what had just happened to him or knew that his father and himself were the only survivors of a large-caliber artillery round that crashed through his house. His mother and two other family members lost their lives. At one of the city's last standing hospitals, the child kept looking at his hands as if to say, What is this red liquid on my hands? What is happening to me? I left the room and doctors came rushing in. Crouching in the corner outside was the father, who looked up at me with watery eyes. As we made eye contact, he raised his right hand and pointed it to the sky as if to call for God's help. Our ears were engulfed by the torturous sound of the child screaming and calling for his father. I have never felt more anesthetized as I did that day. I simply felt empty — and do to this day. I still don't know how to react to what I witnessed. I'm still trying to process it." Sebastiano Tomada—SIPA / Oct. 3, 2012
Manu Brabo "I was working at Dar al-Shifa Hospital with several journalists. We could hear the shelling coming closer, and a lot of wounded people began arriving at the hospital. Suddenly, I saw a big man coming into the hospital while holding a boy around age 10. One of the doctors took the guy into the surgery room. After a while, the man came out of surgery holding the body of his dead son. He was leaving the hospital like he was out of his mind, trying to keep the tears contained. Then he fell on his knees and broke down in the middle of the street."Manu Brabo—AP / Oct. 3, 2012
Maysun "I was taking pictures at Dar al-Shifa Hospital. Every day was a slaughter, and still is. Only three of the nine floors of the building are usable. On the ground floor is a small room that served as a morgue. There were two bodies that had not been identified — one didn't have a head. After several days, they were loaded into the back of an old van and driven to a large cemetery. We barely had light. There was no one to bury them, so they decided to leave the bodies on the ground, covered with a blanket. As we were driving back to the hospital, Ahmad, an FSA fighter, couldn't stop telling me, 'Ya haram! Ya haram! We must bury them! Dogs will eat them!' We returned to the cemetery at nightfall. While trying to bury them in a mass grave, a plane made several passes over us. We had to turn off all the lights — a flashlight and the glow from our cell phones. The bodies were buried as quickly as we could, without names or ceremonies or mourning. Several days later, I found out Ahmad went missing after the Syrian army bombed the hospital." Update, Jan. 22, 2013: Maysun reports that Ahmad has been found alive and well. Maysun—EPA / Oct. 13, 2012
Asmaa Waguih "Nothing is fixed in Aleppo, not the location of pro-government snipers nor the position of rebels nor the streets themselves, many of which have been destroyed by months of fighting. All of a sudden, I caught sight of this guy, and I went over. I saw him setting up the device, and then, as the other men directed him, taking aim at pro-government forces with a homemade bomb. In order to fire, he had to lower his body all the way to the ground. Then he released this weapon. A short pause, and boom. It's not uncommon for rebels to use homemade bombs. There's a shortage of ammunition, and they have factories where they make these improvised explosives, although they won't allow journalists inside to see."Asmaa Waguih—Reuters / Oct. 26, 2012
Jerome Sessini "This 19-year-old civilian boy was shot in the throat by a Syrian sniper as he was crossing the avenue. It brought me roughly into one of the realities of war: that death strikes everyone, people like you and me. I assume that the short distance from the subject gives a partial and fragmented vision of reality, but in this kind of situation, it makes the difference between a good photo and an image that affects consciences."Jerome Sessini—Magnum / Oct. 20, 2012
Javier Manzano "Two regime snipers had closed several side streets in the strategic Karmel Jabl neighborhood of Aleppo, keeping the rebel positions in check. As FSA soldiers attempted to flank them by punching holes through the walls of houses (so they could travel house to house without being seen by snipers), the rebels took turns guarding their position. More than a dozen perforations made by bullets and shrapnel peppered the tin wall inside the building, as the dust from more than 100 days of shelling and firefights hung thick in the air around them."Javier Manzano—AFP/Getty Images / Oct. 18, 2012
Narciso Contreras "There have been days of random shelling and indiscriminate air strikes in Aleppo, with bombs and mortars landing everywhere. They leave you with a deep feeling of being completely exposed, realizing there were no places to hide, nowhere to run. On this particular day, the mortars were landing in Aleppo's civilian neighborhoods. One hit a bakery in the Hananu district, where dozens queued for bread. I heard the explosions from the hospital in Sa'ar. I was at the entrance of the hospital, where doctors and civilians were running from one car to another and carrying the victims into the hospital. There was no space for a photographer without obstructing the medical staff, so I decided to go upstairs and photograph from overhead. This frame brings to mind the memories of shattered bodies arriving in the back of a truck, recently pulled from rubble. The bodies were completely smashed in piles of burning flesh — flesh which was still smoking, with faces, without any form."Narciso Contreras—AP / Oct. 23, 2012

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