Warrior: An Interview with Abdulmonam Eassa

I was interviewing the voice of the voiceless, the eyes that witnessed the worst war crimes occurring today in our world. I was talking with a broken heart, grieving on what used to be a home. It was a conversation with bravery, immense strength and ambition. This is not the story of Essa solely, but the story of human society, solidarity, justice and survival. This is a testimony we should all listen to, as it is not a piece of history, but breaking news. Since 2011, more than 500,000 people found their death due to the Syrian civil war.  
Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

Abdulmonam Eassa is a Syrian refugee, a photojournalist who published his photographs in the New York Times magazine, Guardian, Washington Post and more. He won 2nd and 3rd prizes at War/Conflict Category in the International Photography Awards 2018. Born in 1995 in the Syrian capital- Damascus, Eassa matured rapidly under the siege, the cruel war, facing death as a constant and realistic threat. He spent his childhood in Hammouria, Eastern Ghouta. When the Syrian Civil war started, his life has changed drastically; he needed to drop out from school and find a way for him and his family to survive. Essea discovered photography as a mean to show the rest of the world how life under this aggressive war looks like. I was meeting a true storyteller, a justice fighter and a humble man. We had our talk in Paris, where Eassa has arrived in the 1st of October, 2018 and finally found a safe shelter.

A town under siege is but a big prison trapping you and your loved ones inside, with no possibility of breaking out. The only escape is to seek refuge in your dreams and memories, but this is only temporary – every time reality hits back with a vengeance, dragging you back into the horror and tragedy of everyday life. The sound of the bombardments and airstrikes, the threat of death that follows you around everywhere you go, the hunger, the chilling cold, the surging prices, the endless losses. You keep fighting till you lose yourself; keep resisting that gaze of helplessness in the weary eyes around you; keep getting reminded by the laughter of the children that no matter what, deep inside you, there is still hope tucked away”.

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

How did you protect yourself during the war?
I don’t know. I never had protection in all these five years. 

Did you do medical checks to see if you are ok?
Not yet. I don’t know if I am good but I think that I am good. During these five years I was injured twice. One time by the rocket and the other time by the bombs. I smelled chemical gas three times. One time they took me to the hospital and I spent there eight hours. You know, when I was younger I was strong in my body; I could survive under the war, but those who were born under the siege didn’t have good nutrition. Many kids are ill and sick. The doctors told them that there are not enough medicines. 

Wow, who were the doctors in the hospital?
They were Syrian doctors. A major problem in Eastern Ghouta was the lack of doctors. 350,000 citizens had very few doctors. The doctors gave medical aid trainings to normal people. During the siege the doctors opened a local training center. We didn’t have another choice. I knew many people who trained themselves to give medical assistance and I trained myself to be a photojournalist, because I wanted to show the world what is happening in Syria.

Abdulmonam Eassa. Photo by Tamar Shemesh

How did you get your first camera? What made you go and take your first photos?
I took my first camera from a local media center in my city. I already knew them because my cousin used to work there and i told him that I wanted to do something. We were volunteers, and our work was to cover the news; how many people died, injured, how many people in our city got arrested by the Syrian government. I was working hard for that. After that, when I took my first photos, I realized that I had found my passion. I love the camera. I started there, but I had no experience. I took an online training course for photography and finished a 2 weeks’ workshops with a certificate. After that I took videos every day and I published it on social media.  At that time, it was only for Syrian people. In 2015, I signed a contract with AFP Agency. They couldn’t send a foreign journalist there, and wanted someone from there. I started working with them, covering the life under siege. 

Weren’t you afraid?
The first time I got injured was in 2013, and I was very scared. Every sound is like ‘oh my god’, you can’t imagine. But step by step, I lost all fear. By now I am not afraid. Even when I started covering the yellow vests in Paris, I was not afraid at all. Many times, the explosions were close to me, and I was smiling. 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

You are resilient. Did you think that you were going to die?
A lot of times. All the time. 

Yes, I can imagine. So can you tell me about your journey? How did you get from Eastern Ghouta to Paris?
My family left to an area closed to Eastern Ghouta with governmental buses. I told to my family that since I am a photographer and I move all the time, I can’t leave. My mother, my two brothers and my sister left. I didn’t want to go with the buses the government offered. I told to my family that I will never force them to stay with me. When my family left Eastern Ghouta, I spent 14 hours outside with my bag. I had my laptop, camera and some other stuff. Then, I started moving from city to city. I helped some people, took pictures, send some news. At the end of the day I found an Internet, sent my photos and slept. 

Where did you sleep?
In different places. One time in the entrance of a building. At the end of March, after the agreements between the group-fighters and the government, I left by bus to North Syria. 30 hours in the bus. It was terrible. I didn’t take a shower or changed my clothes for 2-3 weeks. I arrived to north Syria. A friend of mine in North Syria came to pick me up and took care of me. The food was cheap there. Under the siege the prices are completely different, so I bought strawberries. I didn’t see strawberries for five years. I stayed with my host friend for a week. North Syria is very complicated because of the Turkish and Kurdish border. When I was there, I felt like my mind died, I needed new things. I have just lost five years of my life. 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

What did you do?
It was impossible to find legal ways to leave Syria, so I did it illegally. I found a smuggler. I needed to pay him a lot of money. I took my friend with me and gave the money to my friend. Only after I had crossed the border, I asked my friend to pay to the smuggler. It was not easy; the border-police stopped us nine times. I didn’t look like a photographer, but quite normal. Some people got killed by the border- police when they tried to cross. One time they arrested my friend and I. We spent 10 hours in investigation. They forced us to clean their place, the toilet, to pick up cigarettes from the floor. After that, they sent us back to Syria. 

The 10th time I succeeded to cross. It was very early in the morning at the border, and we moved from the Syrian side to the Turkish side. It was a mountainous area. We stayed in the mountains for 10 hours. In the night, when they couldn’t see us, we walked for 7 hours; from the border to the city. We arrived there to another smuggler. I was with three friends and some other people. I had nothing with me. I left my stuff in Syria and someone who had a legal permit brought it to me in Turkey. When we arrived to the city, I called my friend and told him that I don’t trust that smuggler. I needed a car to take me. He called someone and sent me a car with someone that I could trust. I arrived to another city, and from there to Istanbul; all illegally with a private car. If we would have used public transportation, they would have stopped us and sent us back to Syria. In Istanbul, I started to learn English, and I applied for a visa to France.

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

Why France?
I don’t know. There is the French embassy in Istanbul, and I could get support from AFP in my case. I was working with them and thanks to that- I got the visa. For other countries I should have expected a lot more time. AFP’s office director had connections with the French consulate. He sent a letter stating that they know me and that I can’t go back to Syria. I waited two months, and they sent me an application. I filled the application and got an interview with them. After two weeks, I got the visa. It was faster that way. I arrived here at 1st of October, 2018. I am the first person from Eastern Ghouta, who left Syria and arrived in Europe. 

Wow, seems like your talent in photography has a lot to do with it.
Yes, and also thanks to France. They accept refugees that have political issues with their governments. 

So you arrived. First of October. Where did you go? What did you do?
My friend from Syria welcomed me. He was living in ‘The House of Journalists’. He took me from the airport. I spent there three weeks. I didn’t have legal documents, so I couldn’t rent a place, but eventually the house of journalists had a room for me too. 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

I think that your story is a combination of luck and intelligence.
Yes, it’s true, but about my work in Syria, I am sad cause it didn’t change anything.

Do you think so?
Yes, but I think that in the future it will be different. 

“Well, it was a crazy day like other days back then, I was sitting by my house when the warplanes launched a strike dropping four missiles, very close to my place. As always, I grabbed my camera and rushed to the place. When I arrived, I couldn’t see anything through the smoke. Suddenly, an old man shouted at me, telling that there is a child pinned beneath the debris, but still alive. I handed my camera to my friend who was standing next to me and saved the child. I tried to save another two kids. Throughout those moments, I had a brain freeze; I do not know from where all that energy came from, or how I handled the situation. All I know, without thinking, is that I could bring the two children out and that they were alive.”

What are your plans for the future? What are your dreams?
I want to continue maybe in Europe. I want to cover news. I am looking for chances. With AFP, I cannot work with them regularly because I am a freelancer. I know that I have a very good experience, though. 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

That is true. Tell me, what is photography for you?
Now I have some new perspectives. Before, I believed that I was shooting to show the truth. Right now, I am sure that there is no justice. I shoot to cover the war and the politics. The world should know about what is going on. For example, you didn’t know before about Eastern Ghouta. One of my photo-projects is called “With Their Own Bare Hands.” It is a project about how people saved other people only with their hands and bodies. There were no other instruments and medical tools. Many times I saw children died in front of the door of their schools.

Wow. I knew about the war in Syria, but it is very revealing to hear firsthand experiences from your mouth.
You know, in 1982, the father of Bashar Assad killed in Hamar, a city in Syria, 30,000 people. He cleaned many towns. Only after few years, people started to talk about it. Before, no one knew about it and no one could talk about it. People went to the international court, the UN and asked- why didn’t you do anything to save us? And they replied- We didn’t have proofs. Right now they have proofs about everything, why don’t they do anything? 

How frustrating it is.
When I was in Istanbul, I met a UN delegate. The Syrian government contacted me, and I sent them all the information; how many people died, how they killed the people, etc. I was very angry but I thanked her for the meeting: then I said that in the last five years I sent them all the proofs, and they didn’t do anything. They were trying to target the locations of the hospitals, so that these hospitals wouldn’t be bombarded. But, In the past attacks the first places that they attacked were the hospitals. Doctors were smart and they established underground hospitals. They kept two secret hospitals. In the last strike they bombed all the places, beside the secret hospitals. You can imagine how angry I am. 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author

Yes, of course I can imagine.
Did you see the film ‘A private war’?

It’s about an American journalist that was killed in Homs, Syria in 2012. You should watch it. I need to watch it. Marie Colvin was such a great journalist and she got to Homs in 2012 when it was under the siege. She arrived there through the tunnels and was covering the situation. Marie was working with ‘Sunday Times’ magazine in England. Her director forced her to go out from there because it was too dangerous, but she didn’t agree. Before she died she gave an interview with the CNN- Live from Baba Amar. It’s amazing. Watching this movie, you can understand the situation in Syria and how they killed the people. 

I think that as much words and images you use; it is like one drop in the ocean. I can never understand but I know that you went through a lot. This is so important for people to see and to know what is going on. You are brave.
I feel good when you say that you want to understand. Some people don’t want to understand. 

How do you predict the future of the war?
I don’t believe to the UN anymore. For me, I know that the Syrian government wants to kill the groups that fights against them, but why do they kill innocent people? 

Photo by Abdulmonam Eassa / courtesy of the author
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