May 2020

  • Signs of Renewal

    Image from Syrian Arab Republic, Mouneb Nassar

    This photograph, captured in 2018, shows young children in Eastern Ghouta, Syria performing a puppetshow amidst buildings and debris destroyed by war.

    The Syrian Civil War began in 2011 with widespread civil unrest and protests against the government in the wake of the Arab Spring. The conflict quickly evolved and grew to involve both foreign governments and local armed groups. The full scale of casualties is still unconfirmed, but estimates suggest well over 400,000 people have been killed, almost half civilians. The atrocities and scale of fighting contributed to one of the world’s largest refugee crises; 13.5 million Syrians were displaced over the course of the war, almost half fleeing to neighbouring countries.

    As a rebel-held area, Eastern Ghouta quickly became a target for Syrian forces; it was under siege for five years, from 2013 to 2018. The siege led to the displacement of 100,000 people and over 12,000 civilian casualties. As the government regained control, over 50,000 were evacuated to rebel-held Idlib. The United Nations has condemned the atrocities against civilians as war crimes, including indiscriminate shelling and the use of chemical weapons.

    Since the end of hostilities, life is returning to the region; markets are bustling and children create games amid the rubble, but recovery is slow. Many survivors are still dealing with the atrocities and destruction they witnessed, and others are returning to find their homes destroyed. Jobs are scarce, and the widespread destruction of critical infrastructure leaves many without consistent access to water and electricity. The region used to be the capital’s primary food source, but more than 80% of its trees have been lost, and the reconstruction process will be long and painstaking.

  • Broken Promise

    Image from Bangladesh, Mohammad Rafayat Haque Khan

    A woman looks on as emergency supplies are distributed in Bangladesh amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

    The rapid spread of the COVID-19 virus has many governments scrambling to procure resources including medicine, testing and personal protective equipment (PPE), and other essential supplies to combat the pandemic. The race to get supplies as quickly as possible has led many governments and institutions to abandon safeguards and transparency measures for the sake of expediency; this gap in oversight has presented many opportunities for criminals and corrupt officials to profit from the crisis.

    In Bangladesh, government officials identified food scarcity as a major challenge in its pandemic response. Poverty and malnutrition are a fact of life for many Bangladeshis, and this vulnerable population will grow as daily wage-earners lose their jobs during the lockdown, leaving them unable to support their families. When the government began to distribute food aid to its most vulnerable populations, 600,000 pounds of rice earmarked for relief efforts was discovered missing. Dozens of bureaucrats and officials in Bangladesh have been accused of reselling relief supplies at higher prices for personal profit.

    Growing corruption in the face of the current pandemic is not unique to Bangladesh. Globally, countries have spent trillions of dollars in medical investments and stimulus funding to halt the wave of infections and keep their economies afloat. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that 25% of global procurement funding for developing countries is lost to corruption; without more safeguards and greater oversight, the massive influx of capital in response to the pandemic may fuel a rise in corruption worldwide.

  • Body of Protest

    Image from Russian Federation, Polina Soyref

    As part of her series “Body of Protest,” Polina Soyref staged her model, staring into the camera, to embody the vulnerability and insecurity of peaceful protestors in Russia.

    According to Freedom House, Russia is “not free” – opposition parties face substantial obstacles, and their leaders are often targeted by harassment campaigns, smeared as foreign agents, or unjustly detained. The state owns the majority of Russian media, and journalists working for opposition-led media are targets for law enforcement. Russia has adopted vague and wide-reaching laws that give law enforcement significant powers in arresting journalists and raiding their homes and offices.

    Russia has seen many civil demonstrations over the last 10 years, largely in support of greater political freedom and free speech. The government has a strong grip on the country and demonstrations against the regime are not well-tolerated. Despite the risks, many Russians are growing increasingly discontented with growing corruption and narrowing freedoms, and they continue to speak in opposition to the government.

    From July-September 2019, a series of protests throughout the country were sparked by allegations of political misconduct, with protestors calling for fair local elections. At one protest in Moscow, leaders of the movement – including opposition candidates – were arrested and detained, and four protestors required hospitalization after being brutally beaten. Over the course of these demonstrations in 2019, more than 2,000 protesters were detained. Police targeted journalists in the crackdown; four were reportedly physically attacked, and 14 were detained.

    Soyref’s photo reflects on the physical experience of taking part in these events, shocked that Russia has allowed excessive force by law enforcement to become normalized. But her photo recognizes the protestors who stand up for their rights: “it is our body that has to bear the consequences. We may feel excitement, pride, or anger, but there are more physical things - cold, fatigue, pain. The body might be more afraid than the mind. It turns out that the only way we can answer violence is by putting our body against it. We go to a protest knowing that for the body it can have any consequences, but we still go and we discover power in both the vulnerability and the fearlessness.”

  • Defending Dissent

    Image from Iraq, Zaid Naeem 

    This photograph shows a young man during the 2019-2020 Iraqi October Revolution protests against widespread corruption. The majority of protestors are under 30, frustrated with a lack of opportunity and dismal living standards, despite Iraq’s significant oil resources.

    The government response has been violent. Security forces in Baghdad opened fire on protestors, fueling even larger protests throughout the country. Iraq’s Prime Minister resigned, but demonstrators are calling for more drastic reforms, pointing to systemic factors responsible for widespread corruption. Security forces have been responsible for many civilian casualties; more than 600 protestors have been killed, and more than 20,000 injured. Over 2,000 demonstrators have been arrested, many still in detention, and some charged with terrorism, which carries the death penalty in Iraq. The protests have been quashed by the government, but the unrest that ignited them remains. The government has called for an investigation into the use of force during the protests, but political infighting in parliament and the question of attribution remains, threatening investigation and reconciliation efforts.

  • Nowhere to Rest

    Image from Iran, Enayat Asadi

    Afghanis form one of the world’s largest protracted refugee populations; according to the UNHCR the 2.6 million Afghan refugees comprise more than 10% of the world’s refugee population. In addition to those who have fled Afghanistan, there are more than 2 million people internally displaced.

    Refugees started fleeing Afghanistan more than forty years ago after the Soviet invasion, but as the violence continued and then worsened, refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are hesitant to resettle. Since 2001, an estimated 43,000 civilians have been killed directly by the conflict, and many more have died as a result of the destruction of critical infrastructure and widespread poverty.

    Iran hosts an estimated 3 million of these refugees, the second largest population of Afghan refugees in the world. Iran has been praised for its treatment of the 1 million documented Afghan refugees, but the unregistered live under constant threat of deportation. Unable to access essential services including health care and education, many live in poverty and are vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers, armed groups, and criminal organizations. Their children are especially at risk; trafficked children are forced to beg on the street or work in construction or manufacturing jobs, often suffering physical and sexual abuse from their captors. Young boys have also forcibly conscripted or coerced into joining paramilitary groups that are sent to fight in Syria. These young soldiers are often used tactically as first-wave infantry, suffering heavy casualties. Despite these risks, many refugees prefer to stay in Iran, risking deportation and abuse rather than return to the destruction and violence that awaits them in Afghanistan.

  • Last Offering

    Image from India, Somenath Mukhopadhyay

    Women perform a ritual in the Yamuna River in India, celebrating a religious festival, honouring the river. The beautiful scene is incongruous with its reality: the women wade in deeply toxic water, the foam produced by chemical pollutants dumped into the river by surrounding factories.

    The Yamuna river is the second-largest tributary of the Ganges River, which Is considered holy by Hindu people. The river is one of the main water sources for the 19 million inhabitants of Delhi. But the enormous demands on the river have left it polluted. Colossal quantities of water are siphoned from the river to irrigate local farmlands and provide clean water for Delhi. By the time the river reaches the city, the fresh water of the Yamuna is largely replaced by household sewage and industrial waste, creating a stagnant pool of toxic water.

    Lack of oversight and safeguards combined with rapid urbanization have created unreasonable demands on the city’s infrastructure. Approximately one-third of Delhi residents live in illegal settlements lacking sanitation infrastructure, and their wastewater flows directly into the river untreated. Industry and manufacturing also heavily pollute the Yamuna; leather treatment, garment dyes, and other manufacturing produce significant chemical-laden wastewater that is dumped into the river. Delhi does have regulations on wastewater treatment and dumping, but corruption is rife, enforcement inconsistent, and competing and overlapping jurisdiction over the river largely prevents real accountability.