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Iraq. Telling the crisis through humanity

“It’s indeed difficult being independent in Iraq. You may risk your life, but you can do it, you are free to choose. Even if it entails a cost: you need a lot of time, and you should be aware that it won’t be paying back anytime soon.” Interview with Rawsht Twana, Iraqi-kurdish photojournalist of Metrography.


When he was in Syria, in Latakia, Kaya was studying economics. Only one exam was left, after years of studying and working as a chef in a restaurant, before the revolution started in his country, followed by the current never ending war.

Since then Kaya’s life radically changed: the return to Qamishlo, in Rojava – north of Syria - where he joined YPG militias (Syrian-kurdish fighters) to defend his homeland; the forced trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in August 2013, to flee the mandatory conscription which he refused, automatically becoming a fugitive, wanted by Bashar Al-Asad’s regime; the arrival in Kawergosk, a refugee camp within Erbil Governorate, from where he moved again to the nearby town of Shaqlawa, where he found a job at “Gazino” Café.

Sudden changes, transitions through different places and conditions, each of them made by countless details that led to the final result: a reasonably normal life, with a house, a job, friends and a wife. 

In order to tell all this you need trust, time and a kind of relationship which is built slowly, step-by-step, between the storyteller and his character. And so it went between Kaya and Rawsht, Iraqi-kurdish photojournalist who told his story through the lens of his camera.

“It was important to tell Kaya’story. It was important to tell the story of a man who sought refuge in my country, and that did everything possible to make it on his own, to be independent. In order to have a job, a house: the essential to come back to a normal life”.

Rawsht comes from Ranya, Iraqi-kurdish city located in Sulaimaniya Governorate, where he also lives, in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, a region historically known for its uprisings against the British empire first, and Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 1991. In a place like Iraq, where in the last two years 17 persons died, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, for the simple fact of trying to do their job, “being a photographer and a journalist, today much more than in the past, is far from being an easy task”.

Anyway, Rawsht, 27 years-old, tries to do his job, and does so in the most complicated way. Since 2009 he is a member of Metrography the first independent Iraqi photojournalism agency, with which “I can’t manage to have a guaranteed fix salary, but at least I can keep my independence at work”.

This last aspect cannot be taken for granted in Iraq, “where all media are, in a way or another, linked to a party or political group, and their concern is to speak to an audience which is already biased, without even making the attempt of providing information based on reality and facts”, Rawsht states clearly.

Osservatorio Iraq met him in Dohuk together with the two editors of Metrography, the Italians Stefano Carini and Dario Bosio, during the the 2-days training  that the agency made for Un ponte per… staff, working for the Mass Communication project supporting Iraqi displaced community in Dohuk Governorate. 

Since when Iraq has been shaken by the expansion of Daesh – Arabic acronym for the self-proclaimed Islamic State – and its consequences, Rawsht, together with his colleagues, engaged himself in first persons to report on the facts and the stories behind now-famous words like “ezidian, Sinjar, kurds”.

“Since last June everybody is talking about Mosul, Erbil, the Christians of Iraq, etc., but very few know about the roads, the traffic, the faces and the suffering that these people are going through”.

This was the reason why today Rawsht is a photojournalist. “Because I wanted to go deep in the stories, in order to research every detail, the smallest nuances that make a difference in the understanding of certain dynamics. In such a problematic context like Iraq so many things happen, and you can’t really understand them in a matter of two weeks”, the usual time-frame for visiting by foreign journalists, who arrive in Iraq spending money for fixers, translators and additional expenses that a “local” would never have.

This being said, the “local” journalist, more than often, besides “the political biases of the paper he works for, doesn’t even have a legal protection, starting from the basic rules of copyright (which is absent in Iraq, ndr)”.

Metrography was born 6 years ago for this reason too. “Beyond the idea of putting us together in order to develop and improve the skills we gained by working and competing with the big international agencies, our aim was to protect and defend our professionalism and will to stay independent”.

“It’s indeed difficult being independent in Iraq. You may risk your life, but you can do it, you are free to choose so. Even if it entails a cost: you need a lot of time, and you should be aware that it won’t be paying back anytime soon”, warns Rawsht, who, in addition to Kaya’s story, in his last works explored the ‘normality’ behind some other difficult stories.

Or, better, “very difficult to be sold on the news market”. Like the one of Milad and Wassam, two 9 and 11 years old displaced orphans now living in the Christian neighborhood of Ainkawa, in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, after their hometown, al-Qosh, in the Ninewa Province, fell under the control of Daesh last August.

Or like the story of Aras, a boy affected by Down syndrome, and his own and caretaker’s struggles to live with the impossibility of finding an ordinary job and provided with a quite fragile social assistance. Finally, several micro stories of children affected by thalassemia, a illness that changes blood composition which affects around 2500 people in KRI.

“Selecting the stories, and then choosing to go in-depth when telling them, is the hardest part, but at the same time the most interesting aspect of this work”. 

Rawsht explains, smiling, that “for example, regarding Milad's and Wassam’s story, I could have talked about their traumas with much less efforts, but only by spending time with them, by talking, interacting, I discovered that Milad was told that they were going to Ainkawa for holiday, not to escape from Daesh”. With the same smile on his face he goes back to when his personal story with journalism and photography started.

It was in 2006 when Rawsht, 17 years old, learnt about the existence of his father’s photo archive. His father died in 1992, at the beginning of an internal conflict among Kurdish factions that ended only in 1997.

“Still today, we don’t know the causes of his death. It seems that he has been killed, but the culprit, we don’t know. I only know that he was trying to avoid conflict and trying to find a common ground for discussion among rivals, nothing else.”

“Looking at those pictures I realized that there is a lot more behind a photograph, and what I am trying to do through my work today is to put into practice this willingness to look for details, in addition to a personal project about my family’s past.”

When asked about the risk that a similar approach entails, especially in a country which appears more fragile by the day, where divisions seem to be irreconcilable, Rawsht replies that he is aware of that.

“But either you choose bombs, and so your life is endangered, or you want to do this work in a smart way, by choosing humanity, the intimate and deep humanity of the stories behind the facts that media are talking about”.

This same approach and modality lies behind what his colleagues of Metrography are doing with A map of Displacement , the first crowfunding project of the agency.

“Since when Daesh burst on the scene and provoked one of the worst humanitarian crisis of recent times, more than 1 million of people are trying to rebuild a life in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq,”, Stefano, Metrography editor in chief, says.

“We met many of these people, and now we are in the phase of selecting 15 of their stories in order to give the world a permanent trace of this terrible crisis. We want to provide a visual knowledge, even when the media attention will decrease”.

The project aims at the creation of a digital platform that will showcase pictures and text of the stories and at the same time report on their geographical location. The result will be a map that the media and humanitarian actors can use to getting to know and relieve these people.

“It won’t be easy to raise the funds we need to implement the project, and maybe other ways to reach such objective could have been easier”, underlines Rawsht. “However crowfunding is not a random choice: we want to continue being independent”.


02 Maggio 2015
Stefano Nanni from Dohuk - Iraqi Kurdistan
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