Lost in a life outside Syria

By — April 17, 2012

I met photojournalist Matilde Gattoni very recently on Facebook, which is to say we haven’t actually met in person. Even so, she’s already made an impression on me. Her work has a way of highlighting humanity—literally in chiaroscuro but also figuratively, whether it is through the grimace of a mother in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp who is shielding her baby’s eyes from the blaring sun, or a woman in a headscarf splashing her way hesitantly, then playfully, through water up to her waist in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, six months after the 2004 tsunami.

Much of Gattoni's work seems to deal with a sense of scale—in architecture, interiors, and industrial settings, but also in the emotional realm. I was particularly struck by the photo below, which doesn’t even show a face but reveals much in terms of what it portrays: the terror surrounding those fleeing Syria’s war. It’s a war so complex and angry that it has caused a woman like this to want to be seen, to stand for the many women who have witnessed horrors, but only in a way that can bring her no further retribution.

As Women Under Siege documents sexualized violence in Syria through our crowdmap, I’ve been looking to better understand what women who’ve left the country already are facing in terms of their new physical and psychological landscapes. I asked Gattoni if she’d tell me more about the woman in this photo. Here are her answers to my questions:  

“I was on assignment for The National, a United Arab Emirates-based newspaper, in Jdeideh, a small village in the North of Lebanon, in the Bekaa Valley. I went there with a fixer who knew a Lebanese man who helps fleeing Syrian families very well. Since the Lebanese government refuses to set up a proper refugee camp, families host Syrians. In order to get in touch with them, it's necessary to be introduced by someone they trust and who knows where they live.

“We met this woman in the first house we visited. She had fled from Syria three days before with her children and husband. She's from Atfeeyah, a city not far from the Lebanese border, near the town of Al Qusayr. They decided to escape from Syria because a few days earlier the Syrian Army had entered their house, where, luckily, there was no one inside. The soldiers stole most of their belongings. When the family came back home they found several pairs of women’s underwear hanging in the living room and words written on the walls that said: ‘You are lucky your women were not here’—meaning that if they had been there, the soldiers would have raped them all (this is the refugees’ interpretation, not mine).

“A few days later, when the woman was home, the army came back. She was holding her baby in her arms. A soldier took his knife and cut the baby's throat. The baby died in her mother’s arms. The men decided then that they would all leave Syria because they were afraid that the soldiers would soon rape their women, since it had happened to a lot of their neighbors. (Again, that's what they told me).

“None of the men I've met wanted to show their face on camera because most of them go in and out of Syria every day in order to help other families or relatives cross the border. They are too afraid to show their faces. Some women agreed after a long discussion—not that I wanted to pressure them, I just thought it would be more powerful to have their pictures, even if their faces were fully covered.

“They are still very much afraid of the regime even though they are in Lebanon. They are aware that the Mukhabarat [intelligence officers] and members of Hezbollah [a Shiite military, political, and social party] are patrolling the area. In the end, they are only 8 miles (13 kilometers) away from the border. The Syrian regime has psychologically traumatized them so much that they feel unsafe even on the other side of the border.

“The refugees told me many times, ‘You don't know what they are capable of—they are everywhere.’ I made sure this woman’s face was absolutely not recognizable and I showed her the picture so she could check for herself if it was okay. After looking at the picture she hugged me in her arms and thanked me.

“She was definitely not at peace. She was still very much worried for her relatives who were still in Syria—worried about her uncertain future, worried about not having money to survive. She was traumatized, shocked, and shaken by what she had witnessed and lived. She told me that whenever she hears somebody knocking at the door, especially at night, she starts crying. Her eyes expressed a deep sadness. She looked totally lost.”

Matilde Gattoni is a freelance photojournalist living in Beirut. Her work, which has appeared in Time, The New York Times, Der Spiegel, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and Vanity Fair among other publications, can be see at her site, matildegattoni.photoshelter.com.