Through a lens, darkly

by
16 June 2017

Formerly a fashion and music photographer, Giles Duley switched to conflict zones. In 2011, he stepped on an IED and lost both legs and an arm. After 30 operations and 18 months of rehabilitation, he picked up his camera again. . . 

WHEN, in October 2015, the United Nations High Commis­sioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ap­­proached me to docu­ment refugee stories across Europe and the Middle East, they gave me the greatest brief.

It was simple: they asked me to “follow my heart”. And, over the coming seven months, that is what I tried to do.

For more than a decade, I have docu­mented the effects of war on ci­­vilians. From South Sudan to Ban­gladesh, Afghan­­istan and Angola, it is the stories of refugees which have mostly been my focus. From the start of the conflict in Syria, I have witnessed the grow­ing crisis in Jordan and Lebanon.

Yet, despite all this, nothing had prepared me for the months on the road, and the hundreds of stories I listened to. Travelling to more than a dozen countries, I got a sense of the enormity of this crisis. Focusing on refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, I saw the effects of dec­ades of war which were creating a diaspora from shattered nations, civilians forced from their homes looking for shelter around the world.

Giles Duley/UNHCRFamily gathering: since 2013, when a sniper shot her through thespine, leaving her paralysed from the neck down, Khouloud has remained in bed, trapped in the same windowless room in a makeshift tent in the Bekaa Valley with her husband, Jamal, and four children.Despite untold suffering and her constant pain, the family has a resilience and bond that is truly remarkable. Bar Elias, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. February 2016I have seen war. I have witnessed its effects first hand, and I know why people flee. It’s a simple question to ask, but what would we do in similar circumstances? To see your friends die, your families living in fear, jobs gone, schools closed, hospitals bombed — at what point would you decide to give up and flee? What has always astounded me is not that the refugees I met fled their homes: it’s the fact that they endured so long before doing so.

I can honestly say that, through­out this project, I never met one refugee who had a sense of victory that he or she had made it to Europe, Lebanon, or Jordan — a sense of relief maybe, but never jubilation. Instead, each bore a longing and a wish for home. These are people who endured to their limit, and, only, when all options had gone, they took the hardest decision — to become a refugee.

I can’t tell you what it is like to be a refugee. I can’t speak for the people of Syria, Iraq, and Afghan­istan. I can only bear witness.

Giles Duley/UNHCRBanners: sign outside Refugee Housing Squat Notara 26 

Giles Duley/UNHCRScarred: a child’s drawing reflects the horrors fled in Afghanistan

Giles Duley/UNHCRPassport: wristband to enable Syrian refugees to gain access to German camps

Giles Duley/UNHCRFour rockets: “The day was peaceful. It had been snowing, but thatwas the first day of sun. So we went on the rooftop. There was no shelling. We sat in the sun. Then four rockets landed.” It would be twomonths before Areej regained consciousness and learnt that two ofher daughters had been killed that day. Her son Muhammad had lost his leg, and one of her other daughters, Bathoul, an eye. Now the family live in one room of a house in Jordan. Her husband, Ibrahim, a long-distance lorry driver, just wants to return to work so that he can support the family. Ajloun, Jordan. March 2016

Giles Duley/UNHCRBare memorial: Mytilini cemetery, where many graves are marked simply with a number. November 2015

 

I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See: Photographs from the refugee crisis by Giles Duley is published by Saqi books price £25 (CT Bookshop £22.50). All profits will be donated to UNHCR — the UN Refugee Agency that protects the rights and well-being of refugees all over the world.

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