On Solid Ground: Photographing the displaced

A new exhibition captures the trauma of those forced to flee to survive.

Rachel stands, hands at her waist, in front of her home – a makeshift shelter built of stones and straw and grey tarpaulin. She looks into the camera. Behind her stretches a small valley full of similar structures; beyond them, green hills and a spare vista of trees.

This is the Bulengo displacement camp in North Kivu, Eastern Congo, where Rachel fled after her village was attacked.  She recalls: “I was bathing the children when I heard gunfire. We left half an hour after hearing the first shots, the children still naked. The houses had already been burnt down and people killed. Some were beaten on the road as we fled and pregnant women had their bellies torn open. I hid while other women were raped.”

Inside this small hold, Rachel keeps a few possessions: a toothbrush, water bottles, a few metal cups and plates beside a basket, the blanket she uses for a sleeping matt on the bare pebble floor.

Rachel’s portrait and those of her home are among many featured in a new multimedia exhibition, On Solid Ground, which comprises images and interviews taken by seven photographers who visited communities in Congo, Kenya, Pakistan, Croatia, Mali, Burundi and Jordan, speaking to and photographing refugees and survivors of humanitarian crises.

In the pictures we meet Marjee, a teacher in Sindh province, Pakistan, rebuilding his home ravaged by flooding two years before. Mathieu, in Barundi, bears deep scars from a machete assault in his own compound, the product of violent land disputes.  Milos, in Croatia, was dislocated to Serbia for six years during the Balkan war. Milos poses with him tamburica, the traditional instrument he played to remind himself of home during the years in exile.  

Humanitarian aid charity International Rescue Committee (IRC) joined with the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) and Panos Pictures to produce the project.  Kristalina Georgieva, European Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response, launches the exhibition today, 20 June, which is also World Refugee Day.

Carolyn Makinson, International Rescue Committee UK’s Executive Director, says of the show: “Whether caused by war or natural catastrophe, displacement shakes the foundations of life. These images portray the common need of all people to have a place of safety and comfort they can call home.”

The free exhibition will be on display at St Martin in the Fields, London until 31 July before touring Europe. An accompanying website showcases the project online with short films documenting how European Union funding supports the IRC’s work.

***

Shugna, holding their daughter Kawila, and Marjee sit in their house in Pakistan. The house was completely destroyed by floods and had to be rebuilt in 2012. © Shiho Fukada/Panos Pictures/The IRC

 

Mathieu fled Burundi in 1972 and returned in 2008. “About two years ago I as attacked. I was coming back from the toilets outside at night when they started hitting me with a machete. I spent a year in hospital.” © Chris de Bode/Panos Pictures/The IRC

 

Muna, a Syrian refugee living in Mafraq, Jordan. She fled her home in Hamidiyeh in Homs province with her children in the summer of 2012. Her husband, a former civil servant turned member of the Free Syrian Army, stayed. “In Syria I was afraid and here I am hungry. I can stand the hunger but not the fear.”  © Abbie Trayler-Smith/Panos Pictures/The IRC

 

Milos Bastajic, 63 years old, from Prkos village in Croatia. The tamburica pictured was one of the few items he brought with him when he and his family were forced to flee Prkos in 1995. He returned in 2001. “Six years to be away was a long time. When we got back the electric wiring had been stripped out of our house, along with the ceramic tiles from the bathroom and the kitchen’s wooden fittings. It was a sad sight. But I was also very happy to be home.” © Adam Patterson/Panos Pictures/The IRC

Rachel in Bulengo displacement camp, Congo. (Sven Torfinn/Panos Pictures/The IRC)

Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses