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.

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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.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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