When I met Zayn Muhammed he was selling packets of tissues outside of a mosque, in the Şirinevler neighborhood in Istanbul. He took me to see the single room that he, his wife and five children currently live in. The family came to Istanbul from Syria in October, after their village northwest of Aleppo was bombed. There the family lived a middle class lifestyle, with Zayn owning a grocery store and selling olives from his orchard. When the family arrived in Istanbul, they moved into tents in Şirinevler park with other refugees from Syria who had nowhere else to go. When the weather turned cold and living conditions in the park became unsanitary, the Turkish government closed down the tent camp, sending many of the refugees to official government run camps, while others decided to take their chances living in urban centers in Turkey. Zayn and his family were offered an unused spare room by a Turkish family he had befriended in the neighborhood. He told me the Turkish people in the neighborhood have been kind to his family, in part because of his five young children, offering them some food, clothes and other supplies. The government is trying to find Zayn a job, but in the meantime he tries to sell his packets of tissues. His wife Nahida spoke of the difficult transition to life in Turkey, with basic amenities like water and electricity costing far more than the family was used to in Syria. Zayn is unsure of what will become of the family, and knows they can’t live in the small room together in the long term. Like other Syrians crossing the border into Turkey every day, Zayn and his family are in limbo unable to get citizenship in Turkey, and unable to return to the village that was once their home, where they lost everything.
Church bells mingle with the call to prayer as smoke rises from chimneys and sunlight pours through clouds. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts that somehow come together to make something very special. I must have missed something when I came here in the summer, maybe walking the hills in the stifling heat deterred the development of any romantic feelings for the city. I’ve been staying the last week here with good friend and fellow photographer Cat Norman (http://catnorman.com), who’s shown me lovely tree lined parks, small neighborhood mosques with rugged wooden minarets, a smoke filled speakeasy-esque bar (that’s technically not allowed to be open right now for some reason), and of course where to find the best burek. It’s a city teeming with life and smiles, but also harsh memories of the past. Children play next to buildings riddled with bullet holes, while the hillsides are dotted white with tombstones in what were formerly public parks, filled up with bodies from the 1992-1995 siege. I’m always taken by the dates when I walk in these cemeteries, they all end in 1992, 1993, 1994, a stark reminder of the great tragedies that occurred here twenty years ago.
But all that’s in the past now and the people of Sarajevo have made great strides to pick up the pieces of their city and turn it into something truly lovely. It’s got all the beauty and style of cities in Western Europe, with half the price tag and half the crowds. Some magazine called National Geographic put it on their list of hot places to go in 2014, and I’d definitely put it on my list as well. Plus if you come later in the year, my friend Cat will have opened the swankiest new hostel in town. Should be exciting.
I’m heading to Istanbul tomorrow and will be joining a Reuters journalist down in Gaziantep, near the border with Syria. We’ll be investigating the situation with Syrian refugees trying to integrate and survive in cities along the border. It’s something I’ve been interested in working on for a long time now and I can’t wait to get down there and start working. In the meantime, below are some reasons you should visit Sarajevo!
Yesterday saw more protests throughout Albania, against the US’ request to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons there. The issue greatly mobilized and united the people of Albania, who came out en masse to voice their objection to the offer. Thousands took to the streets in Tirana yesterday as the government was set to make an announcement of their decision at 5:00PM local time. Here in Shkoder the demonstration was smaller, but the people no less determined to make their voices heard. Starting at 3:00PM, people gathered in front of the local municipality building, making speeches, singing, playing music by John Lennon and Michael Jackson. While people were firm in their convictions, the overall atmosphere of both the protests here and in Tirana, was peaceful. They were not anti US protests, or even anti Albanian government protests, it was simply the people of Albania uniting in their opinion that they did not want dangerous weapons brought to their backyard. In the end the government listened to them.
In my opinion, this was a huge, mature step forward for Albania as a country. Rather than sitting back and allowing the government to make an unpopular decision out of apathy, the people united and the prime minister listened to them. I think this is the first step in restoring some level of trust between the people and their elected leaders. It’s a mark of a functioning democracy to have the common people tell their leaders how they feel about an issue and have them respond appropriately. It’s also a sign of self respect to have stood up to the US’ demands and not accept their country becoming a dumping ground for harmful chemical agents, regardless of what incentives might have been on the table. I hope Albania can use the energy I saw in the last few days, and take pride in this victory, and use it to keep moving forward. They have the potential to be every bit as successful as their EU brethren to the West, if only the people will it.
I was in Tirana yesterday afternoon to shoot the ongoing demonstrations there, against the United States’ request to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile on Albanian soil. The issue has brought Albania into the international spotlight recently, and the outcry from the public here seems to have been a resounding “NO.” The issue is a tough one for the new prime minister, Edi Rama, who is torn between keeping placating the constituency who voted him in, and keeping good relations with the international community, who expect Albania to “pull it’s weight” as a member of NATO. Either way Albania currently lacks a proper facility to handle the over 1000 tons of chemical agents that need to be destroyed or neutralized. Albania was the first country to dismantle it’s chemical weapons stockpile in 2007, for which they built a facility capable of handling the 16 tons of weapons. Firms in the United States, France and Germany are already making bids to build a facility large enough to handle Syria’s considerable stockpile. The prime minister has promised transparency with the public about the government’s decision on the matter, but has yet to come to any arrangement with the international community about the issue.
I had a productive week last week. Upon arriving in Shkoder I contacted a local NGO, the Diocesan Commission for Justice and Peace, who do a lot of outreach work with blood feuds and other issues. I was told they were heading out to meet with some isolated families in the villages outside Shkoder and that I could join them to take photos. This was quite lucky as they often have a difficult time contacting and finding families.
Blood feuds are not unique to Albania, they have been a common practice throughout the Mediterranean and other cultures throughout history. However, Albania is one of the few places where feuds are taking place in any large scale, with violence occurring from ongoing feuds, and new feuds happening yearly. The practice is part of an old system of Albanian customary laws, known as the Kanun, which was codified around the time of the Ottoman invasion of the 15th Century. The Kanun was widely observed until the 20th century as a means for the Albanian people to retain control over themselves and their culture in the face of outside occupation. It’s observance faded during the time of the communist regime, but since the regime’s collapse in the early 90s, there has been an increase in the practice of blood feud and other traditions surrounding the Kanun. In the case of blood feuds, it is largely symptomatic of a lack of functioning in the legal and judicial systems of the new democratic government. Mistrust of the government is rampant, so people are more willing to take matters of justice into their own hands. The government has chosen to stay out of matters involving blood feuds, often leaving families to settle the matters themselves, with tragic results.
Feuds can start from something as trivial as who has the rights to a path running between two properties. Often a heated argument will get out of hand, a man will kill another man and the feud starts. The victim’s family seeks revenge to pay for the “debt” by going after the killer, or as is often the case if he isn’t around, other male members of his family. Aside from the loss of family members, blood feuds often result in abysmal economic situations for the families involved. Usually the breadwinners in the house are either killed, in jail or go into hiding and are unable to provide economic assistance. One family I met with had been in hiding for the better part of 3 years. The father had been driven to alcoholism due to stress from being in the feud, so the wife had to work a low paying job to support her family. She and her sons live in a two room house in the outskirts of Shkoder, the family sleep in one room together and have only a basic stove, refrigerator and very small TV set. The children had been unable to go to school for some time because they feared being killed, but have recently started going to school as the other family said they would not kill them. Their mother is still concerned for their safety and pays a private driver to take them to school daily, and bring them back to the house when they are done. Continue reading ›
Shkoder is the idyllic country town. Here people get up to the sound of roosters crowing at 4am, huge flocks of sheep in the road cause traffic jams, families help each other in their fields, men spend the day distilling rakia with the season’s grape harvest, and stray dogs chew on the discarded entrails of cattle in the streets. Oh Albania. It’s Eid al Adha, the Muslim festival of sacrifice, and the call to prayer is filtering through my open window. The early autumn sunlight through a thin layer of clouds has given everything a very film like look the last few days, which I used to my advantage yesterday with a good photo walk. I found a lovely local market tucked down a few alleyways, where I’m almost certain most tourists visiting would never go.
I wandered into a small warehouse where butchers were selling freshly carved meat, but was told to leave by a heavyset man. I get a lot of odd looks here from passers by on the street. Those who speak English usually ask where I’m from, often assuming Germany, and then usually look confused and ask why I came here when I tell them I’m from the States. When I told a man yesterday that I like Albania he let his cigarette sort of drop out of his mouth for a few seconds, then shrugged and said “But your country is more better I think.”
I’ve had an almost unbelievable run of good luck thus far. My project on blood feuds stems largely on gaining access to isolated families currently involved in feuds. I’ve been quite nervous at my ability to get that access, but upon contacting the Justice and Peace Commission (an outreach group I’ll be working with up here) they immediately got back to me and told me they were meeting with a family today and invited me to join. This should be an important opportunity for me to get an idea of the situation and mindset of some of those involved in these feuds.
I’ll post more about the experience later, until then enjoy some photos of the lovely place I find myself in.
I remember the look on my parent’s faces when I told them I wasn’t going to law school, that I wanted to pursue photojournalism instead. It was February 2010 and I had arrived twenty minutes late to dinner, after shooting at a protest outside UCSB’s Campbell Hall where Karl Rove was speaking. I was coming down from the rush of being around so much energy, and I was extremely giddy. My parents however, were not so thrilled and looking back I can’t say I blame them. I was essentially telling them I was giving up the pursuit of a lofty, noble, often well paying profession for a vague, highly competitive and more often than not low paying profession. It almost seems crazy to try to pursue photojournalism in an environment where newspapers are sacking entire photo staff, publications are moving online, and everyone seems to be saying they have no budget for photos.
I’ve been told by many in the journalism industry that this is a lifestyle more than a career. Thus far I’ve treated photojournalism as something ancillary to my life, but now I’m making the decision to embrace it fully. I could have gone back to school to study photojournalism, but I’ve decided to take a different route. I’ve sold my car, weeded down my possessions to a few cardboard boxes, loaded a backpack and my camera bag and purchased a one way ticket… to Albania. Where’s Albania? Right above Greece, across the Adriatic from Italy. It’s a small former communist country, that at one point was as isolated from the rest of the world as North Korea is today. I’m going to work on a photo essay focussing on the issue of blood feuds in the northern part of the country, a practice that has seen a resurgence since the communist dictatorship fell in the early 90s. I visited Albania almost by accident while I was traveling in the Balkans this last May. I was very taken with the culture and the system of honor and tradition that still persists in modern times, a system that unfortunately allows blood feuds to continue in some areas. I’ll be writing more about this in the coming weeks.
I plan to live very simply out of a backpack, so that I may move around at a moments notice if I need to, with as few distractions as possible. I’ve taken at least one multi week solo trip to a foreign country, every year for the past four years. I’m comfortable traveling alone and being in strange foreign situations, and I’ve been wanting to take an extended trip for a long time now. So for me, this is the culmination of several desires, my desire to travel, to live simply, to write and to devote myself fully to the pursuit of photojournalism. I’ll be working on a story that fascinates me, as well as thinking of others to work on in the area. I plan to work on stories that interest me, and then find places to get them published. I will try to update this blog somewhat regularly with my progress, travel info, interesting cultural tidbits, and of course photos.