Portraits by John Wreford
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Portraits by John Wreford
Last updated: September 7, 2015

Just nine random portraits of Syrians being denied the dignity of a normal life

Banner Icon Photojournalist John Wreford talks life before the war with a group of young Syrians in the beautiful Turkish city of Bodrum.

Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.

So said Herodotus, the Greek historian credited with being the Father of History. The purpose he said of his life’s work, the Histories, was to prevent the traces of human events from being erased by time.

Empires have risen and crumbled since Halicarnassus became the Turkish Aegean resort of Bodrum, birth place of Herodotus, and countless history books have been filled with the traces of man’s bitterest miseries; the bitter and barbaric war in Syria as the latest chapter. The streets of Bodrum are filled with Syria’s innocent victims.

Bodrum with its castle, picture postcard harbor and whitewashed houses draped in Bougainvillea is everything a package holidaymaker should ever need. While not quite Monaco or St Tropez, although the Turkish tourism website claims otherwise, it’s a place to park the yacht and party the night away. Atop the masts in the harbor flutter the flags from Fenerbahce to France, and the well-to-do can rub shoulders with the budget airline brigade and tuck into a Texas steak at the Tango with its trade mark plastic cow grazing on the pavement.

Traditional tourist numbers have been falling in Turkey and yet Bodrum is crowded with visitors, though far from typical as refugees mostly from Syria and Iraq are arriving en mass to make the dangerous crossing to Greece and asylum in Europe. At its closest point, only 4km separate the Bodrum peninsula from the Greek Island of Kos, where some 7,000 refugees landed in July.

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I had been wondering on the 12-hour bus ride from Istanbul where I would find the Syrians planning the crossing, but it didn’t take long; the bus station was awash with refugees. In town the cheap pensions were all full, one weary Turkish receptionist didn’t even raise his head to reply “maaffi” (basically there is none in Arabic) when I asked for a room.

A block away from the sea front is Ataturk Caddesi, a street of cheap sandwich shops and budget pensions, now crowded with Syrians. In the local children’s playground mothers watched as their children enjoyed the swings and slide. The poorest slept under the shade of trees of the municipal park, in the bazaar the refugees mingled with the tourists shopping for tat, a privilege of those not tormented by war.

"The streets of Bodrum are filled with Syria’s innocent victims"

I walked along the beach close to where the boats would be leaving come nightfall. The flotsam and jetsam washed up on the rocks hint at an unfolding human tragedy; flip-flops and trainers, a child’s pink backpack, a punctured black rubber inner tube. The debris could of course be from anywhere, but a deflated rubber dinghy with a smashed engine tells a more sinister story.

After dark I sat on a promontory overlooking one of the coves the refugees would depart from, the black peninsula nothing more than a silhouette. Somewhere in the darkness refugees would be scrambling for a place on a boat meant for pleasure not rescue. I could see flickering lights in the distance but little else. The sound of The Mavericks singing Dance The Night Away echoed from a beach side pub, the irony only a fraction that of the neighboring ISIS hotel and spa, promising holiday memories will last forever.

I decided against trying to photograph the refugees departing – as photogenic and exciting though it may be, instead I thought I would find some individuals and focus on who they were, these people our politicians at home were describing as marauding hordes.

I met Alaa in the reception of my hotel, with a winning smile and flawless English she was quick to tell her story; only 23 years old, a pharmaceutical graduate from Damascus, she was traveling with her sister, the beautifully named Nour al Sham, just 15 years old. A very typical Syrian middle class family they had moved from the suburbs of the capital where four factions were fighting each other to a relatively safer area, although Alaa still had to face a three-hour dangerous commute to work each day. The family had made the difficult and brave decision for the two girls to smuggle themselves to safety in Europe, as their savings were not enough for all of them. We sat in the shade of an olive tree in the hotel garden and chatted about Damascus and life before the war, we didn’t need to discuss the daily bombings, kidnappings, power and water cuts or the rampant inflation that had reduced the respectable family income to that of a pittance.

While we chatted another Syrian came over with a tray of coffee, I said hello to Tarek and he left us to chat but other Syrians joined in and soon the group was nine, they had all met along the road and had become friends, two brothers from Sweida in the south of Syria, the rest from the various troubled suburbs of Damascus.

We talked about the pros and cons of the various European countries they were heading to, about taxes and work options, all were educated and skilled, laughing and joking with each other as though they were old friends. We talked inevitably about Syrian food and chef Mohammad showed us photographs of the Syrian sweets he made, we talked about football and girls, of how beautiful Bodrum was, apart from Lebanon this was for all of them the first time traveling abroad.

The following day I arranged to photograph each of them and when I asked where Tarek was they told me he had already left for Kos, I asked why he went without them and was told he was swimming. We waited anxiously for news before finding out he was safe, exhausted and coughing up seawater and glad to simply be alive.

There is nothing remarkable about the photographs I took, just nine random portraits of Syrians being denied the dignity of a normal life, to earn an honest living and spend their wages on two weeks in the sun.

What will the history books say about this time; that we stoked the fires of war and turned our backs on humanity? Events are being traced as Herodotus taught us, but that’s just about all.


UPDATE:

Since I left, Syrians in Bodrum discovered that smugglers had stolen their money, $1200 each. They moved onto Izmir and found new smugglers and crossed to the Greek Island of Lesvos; wet, tired and cold they spent the night sleeping on the beach. The following day they hiked 30km to Metilini where, once again, they had to sleep on the street.

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John Wreford
John is a photographer who has lived in Syria for many years. He recently had to leave his house in Damascus’ Old City, and currently resides in Istanbul.
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