Photographer Spencer Platt recently visited Iraq on a mission to document what is happening to the people there. Here’s his story…
Heading to the Khazir displacement camp from the Iraqi Kurdish city of Erbil is an exercise in reduction. The bustling city of Erbil is dotted with shiny office buildings, four star hotels and roads seething with sparkling SUV's. Due to some of the lucrative oil deposits in the region and the area's semi-autonomous status within Iraq, it has become one of the top investment destinations in the new Middle East. Christians, Kurds, Shias and Sunnis all seem to mix without animosity. But this ode to modernity and tolerance comes to a quick end along the Mosul highway. This road leads to the ancient city of Mosul, Iraq's second largest city and a world away from Erbil's cosmopolitanism.
I was in Erbil covering the human exodus of over 500,000 terrified residents fleeing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and their brutal advance across Iraq. The shadowy Sunni militant group had taken over Mosul, and many of those who escaped made their way to the forlorn displacement camp known as Khazir on the road between Mosul and Erbil.
Along the nearly 40 minute drive to Khazir, one sees a shimmering sea of wheat fields. The beauty and austerity of the landscape hits you quickly on the outskirts of Erbil, as if a reminder of just how recent this city's development is. The closer one gets to Khazir and Mosul, the golden fields of wheat give way to greasy-looking truck stops, watermelon stands and empty desert. It is there that a large checkpoint marks the end of Kurdish Erbil and the beginning of Arab Mosul. Twitchy Kurdish pesh merga soldiers scrutinize passports and documents; the Arab word for press "sahafi" is yelled out and the documents are snapped back.
The area immediately outside the dusty white tents of the displacement camp has become a wasteland of thousands of Iraqi's and their families. Unable to get past the checkpoint and into the camp due to the authorities’ nervousness of letting non-Kurdish people into the area, entire families wait by the roadside in 115 degree plus heat.
The Iraqi desert highway offers little shelter other than the stifling cars people arrived in. There is little water or food and the sound of wailing children echoes from all sides. Shooting pictures in an environment such as this requires a capacity for checking emotions and closing off that part of the mind where empathy is produced. To focus on shutter speeds, lenses and the composition of your subjects takes concentration, and in this arena of misery, one's mind will wander and fade. But in the end it is a middle aged man with a mustache who, seeing my cameras, demands to have my attention. I try to speak with him in the few Arabic phrases I know to tell him that I'm from New York and a journalist wanting to show the world what is happening in Iraq. He quickly rounds up various hungry and tired children, one lying quietly along the gravel roadside. He puts his hands on their curly black heads and thrusts them towards me in the evening light. "Here" he says, "show the world this." Looking at the children's faces staring at me, I take a picture or two to satisfy his request. Then, as I turn to leave, one of the children smiles, another laughs and in seconds they are giggling and chasing each other among the crowds of the destitute.
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