Tagged: Photojournalism

Caught in the Middle

Caught in the Middle

Ordinary Civilians in Syria

Protests against the regime of Syrian president, Bashar Assad, erupted in March 201. Demonstrators in Damascus and the southern city of Deraa demand the release of political prisoners. Although initially peaceful, security forces shoot a number of people dead in Deraa, triggering days of violent unrest that steadily spread nationwide over the following months. In response to being ordered to shoot unarmed civilians, large numbers of soldiers and police deserted and formed the core of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which was soon joined by civilian volunteers. Since early 2012 the protest movement has escalated into an armed uprising that many consider to have become a civil war.

Whichever side civilians’ support, they have long borne the brunt of a conflict they did not choose and that no-one seems capable of stopping. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country, creating large refugee populations in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. Those who have stayed have no food, no water, and no electricity.

Sanitation systems have broken down and piles and piles of uncollected waste lying everywhere. Diseases are spreading among people whose immune systems have been weakened by hunger. Tuberculosis is ravaging some neighbourhoods, and there have been hundreds of cases of leishmaniasis, a skin disease transmitted by sand flies.

Factories and businesses have ground to a halt. Jobs are almost nonexistent. Fresh meat and groceries are available, but prices have inflated so much that is beyond the means of people who have not worked for such a long period. People’s savings are exhausted and whatever they could sell is sold.

In Syria today, there are no easy solutions. On one hand, the regime can no longer hold its control on northern cities; while on the other hand, rebel fighters are still not fit to provide the population with their basic needs. War profiteers have made the situation even worse.

The long-term psychological damage on an entire generation of Syrians has yet to be played out. If there is no immediate action the world will watch a horrifying humanitarian crisis in one of the oldest civilizations.

Allepo
A man walks in the Bustan Al Qassar district. The street is mostly deserted due to the danger of sniper fire.
Aleppo
Men break up doors and other pieces of wood they have found in their houses to use as firewood. A door will barely last one week and all heating and cooking is now done with wood since the electricity supply has broken down in Aleppo since fighting started in mid 2012.
Aleppo
A group of children try to keep warm
Industrial City of Aleppo
Makeshift barber
Aleppo
A boy carries the Syrian flag used by the rebel movement in a small demonstration after Friday prayers in the street in the Alfardous district.
Aleppo
Pieces of firewood being sold on the street with a set of scales to measure their weight. Aleppo has been experiencing lengthy electricity outages and wood is often the only way to cook and heat for many residents.
Aleppo
A field worker goes from house to house distributing food cards to the most needy families in the Al Shaar district. There has been no electricity for two months so he has to use a flashlight in order to fill out cards.
Aleppo
A small boy displays signs of leishmaniasis, a skin disease caused by the bite of the female sandfly. Public services have broken down in Aleppo since mid 2012 when fighting between the national army and rebel fighters came to the city. The piling up of garbage has been blamed for various infections and spread of diseases.
Aleppo
15 year old Ahmed pushes a card with scraps he has found on the local rubbish dump. Since fighting started in Aleppo between government forces and rebel fighters, most public services such as electricity and rubbish collection have broken down and people have been left to their own devices. 
Aleppo
A man stands in the ruins of an apartment building in the Almashhad district in Aleppo. The building was bombed by the Syrian Army on 8 January 2013.
Aleppo
A boy carries a bag containing plastic bottles he has found on the streets. 
Sarmada, Idlib Governorate
A Syrian woman looks after her child in a school in Sarmada. People are taking refuge in the town near the Syrian – Turkish border as fighting has in neighbouring Hama governorate has intensified. 
Kilis, Turkey
Faisal (23) was insured on 6 December 2012 when a bomb exploded in his district. His right foot has been amputated. He is staying at the Kilis Istishfa Centre where patients stay after they are released from hospital
Kilis, Turkey
Jihad (24) was shot and wounded on 6 December 2012 in Aleppo. He is being comforted by a relative and recovering at the Kilis Istishfa Center where patients stay after they are released from hospital

Letter from Thailand – I am a farang

I am a farang

All my friends went back to Bangkok and then home – all the farangs (Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from) – except for me.

I stayed in the village of Nong Diang Noi Non Yai, the village where the wedding was celebrated. I stayed with the groom’s family. There were six of us; aunt and uncle, their two daughters, one still a schoolgirl, the second married, her husband, and I. Everybody only spoke to me in Thai, not realizing I do not speak it. I spoke to them in English, realizing they do not speak it.

Nong Diang Noi Non Yai village is near the town of Kantharalak, in Isaan province. It and all of Isaan is a breath of fresh air in all senses. It is Thailand’s poorest and most ignored province, which means no-one speaks English, and no-one offers you banana pancakes or tourist tat.

The family, after a long time persuading them that I do not want to drive around on a motorbike but by bicycle, brought me one morning an old one with no brakes, though they made me very, very happy. I could peddle across a vast landscape, between rice fields and stop anytime I wanted to photograph people going about their everyday business. Business as they have done for centuries: growing rice, fishing, weaving silk, catching ant larva, making brooms and charcoal and grazing cows and buffalos.

Me and my “new” bike

Growing rice

In May before the raining season farmers at the Rocket Festival launched rockets to implore the God of Rain to shower the earth with abundant rainfall for the planting season.  The Rocket Festival is an integral part of pastoral life as without enough rainfall crops will not grow.  The majority of Isaan people are farmers even though the Isaan soil is poor.

The Rocket Festival

The Festival is an integral part of pastoral life.

So, after all the rockets were fired into the sky and rain-making rites and other ceremonies to pray for fertility of the land were done, the rice-planting season started.

The rice-planting season started.

Rice seeds are planted before ploughing; then again after soil is ploughed just to be sure some rice seeds will catch on and will grow.

Tractors are very rare.

While flooding is not mandatory for cultivation of rice, all other method of irrigation require higher effort in weed and pest control during growth periods and a different approach for fertilizing the soil.

Unfortunately I could not find out what kind of chemicals these farmers use, or if it is fertilizer or weed killer.  Whatever it is, it makes me always think when I ate rice (mostly 3 times a day) that chemicals are used helping rice grow. There is no distinction between the dishes eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Spicy stir fried vegetables with sticky rice are just eaten in the morning as in the evening.

Unfortunately I could not find out what kind of chemicals farmers use.

To have better quality of rice, seeds are planted at a greater distance one from the next.

Rice seedlings are planted in a flooded field.

Fishing

To supplement their income women often make fishnets by hand and men do all fishing.

Woman makes fishnet.

Men do all fishing.

Not only fish are caught but also frogs, ant’s larva, snakes and many types of insects. These and fish can be sold in the market or consumed by the family – the catch is an important sort of protein.

A woman catching frogs in a pond.

A woman with a net filled with red ants and their larva. She still has to get rid of the ants.

An elderly couple collecting charcoal they made. Gas is used for cooking in most towns, but villagers usually use charcoal or firewood.

Euro 2012 started, but no one was interested in “my” village. They watched on TV Muy Thai or Thai Kickboxing, Thailand’s ancient martial art. It is known as the “Art of Eight Limbs” and is the national sport of Thailand. I went once to see it live, where all categories, from children to adults fought.

Thailand’s ancient martial art known as the “Art of Eight Limbs”

All categories, from children to adults fought.

A boy uses Muay Thai fighting to feed his family.

I also participating celebration of Visakha Bucha Day or the Buddha’s Birthday or Buddha Day. It isthe most holy time in the Buddhist calendar; it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and the passing away of Gautama Buddha the founder of Buddhism. Students in Kantharalak visited Buddhist Vat on Friday, three days before the D-day. They brought food and sweets for monks and they prayed. After prayers they went around the temple three times.

Celebration of Visakha Bucha Day.

Students in Kantharalak visited Buddhist Vat on Friday, three days before the D-day.

After prayers they went around the temple three times.

For the D-Day I was in Bangkok because I had to go to the Indonesian Embassy to apply for a visa. I went to Suwan Buddhist Vat where people brought gifts to Monks, where they prayed, and where they were given gifts from monk as well.

Thai couple poses for a photo in Suwan Vat on the Visakha Bucha Day on June 4th. They hold baskets full of gifts to monks.

Another Thai couple who already got the gifts (which they have chosen) from a monk.

You must already feel my Thailand trip is at the end. I got the Indonesian visa and on June 14th I am off to Banda Aceh, Indonesia through Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I should still mention that I wanted to photograph buffalos, an animal that is very photogenic. But I was afraid to go closer to it, and not having a zoom but just 20mm and 28mm lenses, there is no closer shot of this magnificent animal. Most farmers use the plowing machine, which replaced buffalos.  It acts as a tractor and pulls a trailer. The iron-spike wheels can be changed for tires.

What else should I say. Yeah, the Isaan kitchen is much hotter than Thai kitchen. So first Isaan dishes drove tears into my eyes. When I, by accident, ate chili pepper, the family died of laughter while I was screaming like a lion into the air.

A farmer using a ploughing machine.

I should still mention that mostly elderly woman chew “betel” – areca nut wrapped in betel leaves, called by local’s “mak”. It had driven me crazy when an auntie spat her betel juice out. Red colour saliva looked like splotches of dried blood on the ground.

A woman spitting betel juice.

A woman showing her blackened and loose teeth caused by chewing “mak.”

The young people find betel chewing no longer socially acceptable. Also modern social taboos such as spitting, have contributed to the decline of betel chewing. Despite a decline in the custom, the betel chewing still remains in country-side areas, where it’s use for medical and cultural purposes, and where women chew betel for social affability, in a similar way to us farangs drinking coffee together.

I must say good-bye to Buddha and hello to Allah so I am off to Indonesia, the biggest Muslim population it the world.

Letter from Thailand – Before the Wedding

Before the Wedding

Back in Bangkok, just for couple hours before we are off by train to Isaan – the northeastern region of Thailand. We got off in Si Sa Ket, then continue to Kantharalak by bus. In Kantharalak one of the groom’s family members was waiting for us with a track. We had still 30 km to go to the village of Nong Diang Noi Non Yai.

There are 2 days left before the wedding. Not much is happening; no kind of preparation – no food is cooked, no decoration is done, everything, most of it will all be done the day before the big day. So we relax, drink beer, local rice “vodka” and Sang Som, a local rum­­­­­­­­­­­­­­.

A day before the wedding women started to make a Buddhist POT. Leaves of banana are cut, small flowers are added. And then all this is ensemble together.

Leaves of banana are cut

small flowers are added

The bride and groom with two witnesses and farangs (Thai word for someone of European ancestry, no matter where they may come from) went to the authority’s office, where the marriage was officially signed.

Marriage is officially signed – first bride.

 then groom and witnesses.

document must be stamped

and now Martina and Jet are officially married.

After the official wedding, we went to the market to buy food for the wedding, in the back of a pickup truck, the way everybody travels in Thailand.

Going to the market  in the back of a pickup truck.

In the market there were many things to choose from:

Frogs

Mushrooms

Chickens

Fish

Ant larva

Beef

and pork.

Vegetables we know

Vegetables we do not know

and fruits.

I should not forget alcohol – beers, local rice “vodka’” and rum were bought as well. All this was put on the truck, between us.

Chang beer for the wedding.

For the family, kitschy pictures of Prague were printed and framed.

Pictures of Prague

We wanted to sleep early because the big day started the next day in the early hours. But cooking went on; villagers were visiting or just were coming to see so many farangs in one place at the same time, a rare occasion.

Cooking went on all night

I am exhausted, good night everybody, will continue shortly, will continue shortly, will…


			
					

Letter from Thailand – I am a tourist

I am a tourist 

I went to Thailand to photograph the wedding of my friend Martina. I didn’t go alone but with other friends of her’s. The wedding was scheduled on May 19, 2012 but we arrived in Bangkok two weeks earlier. We were five but only four were staying for the wedding.

We didn’t fly to Bangkok together; everybody was coming with different air companies and by different routes and times. Do not ask me why. It just happened this way. I was flying with AeroSvit Ukrainian Airlines (which I would not recommend to anyone), arriving at Bangkok airport at three o’clock in the morning. Peter was arriving the same day but four hours later and I should wait for him. So I was wandering across the airport, I bought couple beers, but time didn’t move. I bought more beers till my eyelids were getting heavier and heavier and eventually they just shut down and I couldn’t open them anymore.

Peter arrived, the future bride came to meet us, they looked for me but I was nowhere to be found – I was sleeping heavily in a far corner with other travelers, homeless and airport workers. Luckily, my angel woke me up and I rushed to look for my friends, worried that they may have left the airport without me. They did not. We found a cheap hotel, one room for all, with one double bed, some will have to sleep on the floor.

The future bride and groom introduced us to their Thai friends and a beer marathon started and it lasted for three days. What else to do in Bangkok, where the temperature and humidity are very high. Jet, the future groom, works at an ice distribution centre. In this heat ice cubes are in high demand, employees work from early morning to late night.

Thailand is a tropical country with sunshine and high temperature all year long, so ice is very necessary for its people.

When everybody arrived in Bangkok we jumped on the train and then a bus and finally arrived to Khao Sok – rainforest resort. In the tourist guide it’s written, “more than 48 species of mammals, 184 species of birds and thousands of species of trees and plants have been recorded there.” We went to see waterfalls where on the footpaths leeches were waiting for us. And there were millions of them.

The waterfall was a kind of rapid or maybe we just didn’t get to the right one.  There was frogs’ music during the night and one burglar, who checked some backpacks and took only local money. I guess he was a Buddhist thief.

We went to see waterfalls where on the footpaths leeches were waiting for us. Photo by Petr Bartos

The waterfall was a kind of rapid. Photo by Petr Bartos

From Khao Sok we moved to Koh Lanta. We travel all day, changing one bus after another, then minibus to ferry, exiting at the beach for a swim. Well…when we arrived we find not a sandy beach but a coral one…it was ebb tide.

We find not a sandy beach but a coral one.

We stayed one week, went to the sandy beach, traveled around the island on motorbikes, ate well, drank well, but for my taste… I do not like to be a tourist, not staying in one place long enough to know it well, to know people well…

Koh Lanta fisherman

A portrait of a sea gypsy in the village of Sang-ga-u in the south east corner of Koh Lanta. Sea Gypsies or “Chao Ley” (people of the sea) used to live a semi-nomadic lifestyle in the Andaman Sea; these seafarers of Indo-Malay origins were also the first settlers on the island some 500 years ago.

A picture of the Rama IX, the current King of Thailand in the old town of Lanta Old Town.

I wished I could stay longer in this small Koh Lanta Island and become a friend of the sea gypsies. But we were on move again, this time to a really touristic area – Phi Phi Island. We travelled by boat with all the tourists, meeting another boats full of tourists as well.

A boat full of tourists.

Phi Phi village is very, very, touristic. We had bungalows far from the center, though the music was so loud all night – ok, it finished at 3:00 a.m.  – there were some seriously stupid show, the same each night and the same music as well. Ah, Phi Phi Island, I did not like you and I was wasting the little money I had on you.

Some Thai come every morning to work here.

We took a boat trip to other islands. The first stop was on the Monkey Island. Monkeys were supposed to be friendly to human tourists. But with our group they were not friendly at all. Well, in the beginning it looked like they might like us.

Monkey Island.

But then one jumped on me… and other one grappled Peta’s hair…and it wasn’t funny anymore.

Crazy monkeys ready to jump on me.

The next stop was ….boy do not know the name but I felt whole of the world is snorkeling there.

Whole of the world is snorkeling there.

Tourists with life vests.

I must say I was very happy to go back to Bangkok, from where we were going to Isaan….the wedding.

Letter from Ukraine IV, 2011

Privet (Hi) from freezing Kyiv for the fourth time

New protests kicked off the year 2011. The statue of Josef Stalin was blown up on New Year’s Eve in Zaporizha (western Ukraine). On January 14, a protest was held at the Presidential Administration building against recent arrests of mem-bers of nationalist groups who claimed responsibility for decapitating the bust of Josef Stalin in Zaporizha on December 28, 2010.  On January 17, citizens took to the streets to prevent the government from shifting the tax burden to small and medium-sized businesses.

New protests kicked off the year 2011.

Yanukovich was promising a five-year tax holiday for small businesses during the 2010 presidential election campaign and one year later, he’s accusing small business owners of trying to avoid paying taxes.  Furthermore, he promised to respect laws but rolled back media freedoms, banned peaceful protests and is said to have fixed the nationwide local elections.

Citizens took to the streets to prevent the government from shifting the tax burden to small and medium-sized businesses.

The events of Unity Day (Den Sobornosti) on January 22 have revealed how divided Ukraine is. The Kyiv City Administration received 20 applications for holding different rallies in Kyiv on that day. Civic leaders and Yulia Tymoshenko, for example, called on citizens to gather on Kyiv’s St. Sophia Square to support demands for early parliamentary elections. Yanukovich and his allies organized an all-day concert on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) where attendees were paid 120 Hryvnas to be there. But many people for some reason were not paid the bribe, so they stormed one of the Ukraine’s Regions Party offices and demanded their money.  It is really the terrible poverty that makes people to stay and hold the Ukrainian flag – they can earn 120 Hryvnas ($15) for standing seven hours on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Celebration of the Unity Day on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

Attendees were paid 120 Hryvnas.

I spent most of the time at Tymoshenko’s rally where speeches were delivered, where folklore music and theater were played, where newspapers and pamphlets were given away and where Tymoshenko demanded parliamentary elections to be held this year or else a peaceful revolution will topple the president and his government.

Folklore music and theater were played during the Ukrainian national holiday of Unity Day.

Followers of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko gather together on Kiev’s St. Sophia Square to celebrate Unity Day on January 22. It was on this day in 1919 that the Ukrainian National Republic united with Western Ukrainian National Republic to form a short-lived state.

Supporters of Julia Tymoshenko applauding to former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s speech.

Moscow police have closed the only Ukrainian library in Russia, confident that now it can do so without objections from the Yanukovich government in Kyiv. Like the Soviet predecessor, the Russian government has never been supportive of the more than five million ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia, refusing to open any Ukrainian-language state schools even as it has complained about the closure of some of the many Russian-language schools operating in Ukraine. A small number of citizens demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the library closure.

A small number of citizens demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs against the library closure.

Did you close the Ukrainian Library? We will close Russian schools!

On January 27, a demonstration against political repressions was held by one of the grassroots organizations, the Tryzup (Trident – a Ukraine-wide nationalist organization) in front of the Ukrainian Federal Prosecutor’s Office in Kyiv. Seven activists of the Tryzub were arrested for beheading the bust of Stalin on December 28, 2010. Later on, more members of Tryzub were detained.

I do not like Stalin either. Am I a criminal?

Demonstration against political repressions.

The Kruty Heroes’ Remembrance Day on Jan. 29 has shown how Ukrainian the opposition groups are divided as well.  First, in the morning of that day Julia Tymoshenko and her supporters laid flowers honoring all of those killed at the Askold’s Grave in Kyiv. Later, the Ukrainian People’s Party with The Tryzub (All-Ukrainian Association) did the same. Why they didn’t do it together, only they know.

Who are the Kruty heroes? It all happened 93 years ago (January 29, 1918), when students fought the Bolsheviks, defending the Ukrainian People’s Republic near the village of Kruty where all of them were killed. Throughout the years, the true story of the battle was hidden from the view by the Soviet Government. Even today, Vladimir Putin the Russian Prime Minister is not happy about the Kruty Heroes Remembrance Day.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and her supporters laid flowers honoring Kruty heroes.

Remembering the Kruty Heroes, Kyiv.

Tymoshenko’s investigation continues and journalists and a small number of supporters always wait for her in front of the Prosecutor General’s Office no matter if it is snowing, freezing or raining.

A supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, holds a photograph ofTymoshenko in front of the Prosecutor Generals Office on January 18. Prosecutors launched criminal cases against Tymoshenko, accusing her of abuse of power by misspending government money when she was in power.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is surrounded by journalists and supporters in downtown Kiev on January 25, 2011 before being questioned by investigators. Mrs. Tymoshenko stands accused of misspending some $280 million in state funds while serving as prime minister in 2009. Tymoshenko denies all wrongdoing.

Ukraine has a long way to go. And it will not be easy. Democracy remained elusive, the global corruption survey shows that Ukraine has the highest level of corruption among the Newly Independent States.  The Russian language and culture dominates in many parts of Ukraine (many, like Prime Minister Putin do not think it is a real nation); and there is no abiding law and order.

Ukraine has been carved up and suffered the two biggest tyrants known to mankind – Hitler and Stalin – and the paradox is that an explosion which destroyed a bust of the Stalin on 31 December 2010 is classified as an act of terrorism, instead of vandalism! Millions of Ukrainians have been murdered in war and forced famines. Two decades into its existence, Ukrainian still struggle for survival and nationhood.

Letter from Ukraine III, 2011

Privet  (Hi)  from Kyiv for the third time

When nothing is happening in the capital of Ukraine I roam the streets. The Kyiv Arch of Friendship symbolizing friendship between Russia and Ukraine stands near our house. The Arch is also called a rainbow or a Russian collar, depending on which political camp you belong to.

The Kyiv Arch of Friendship

The National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) is a huge complex commemorating WW II. Pictured here are some fragments of the sculptural composition in the memorial complex. The reliefs symbolize the Soviet (Ukrainian) people rising up against the Fascists.

Sculptures at the National Museum of the History of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945).

I already mentioned that the authorities target opposition leaders and activists for investigation. Nearly a dozen allies of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko were arrested recently and investigations into her and allies continue at high pace. I showed my face at the Prosecutor General’s Office couple times when Tymoshenko went for her interrogation. Journalists and small number of supporters were waiting for her.

Opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko is surrounded by journalists and supporters downtown Kyiv.

These supporters are not paid, there is no one to take down there names, and no one organizes anything there. It is more likely that only the journalists are paid for their work there – as hopefully I will be if I sell some of these images!

A supporter of Yulia Tymoshenko, former Prime Minister, holds Tymoshenko photograph in front of the Prosecutor General’s Office in Kyiv.

When Tymoshenko arrived supporters greet her and journalists interview her. Both groups wait till she leaves the Prosecutor General’s Office. And journalists interview her again and supporters continue to support her.

Tymoshenko is being investigated for alleged abuse of power during her tenure as Prime Minister. Tymoshenko denies all wrongdoing.

One of Ukrainian’s most important religious holidays, the day of the Epiphany, was celebrated on January 19. Early in the day a church service is held, then after the water is blessed the faithful take their bottles home and keep the water all year, which is believed to keep their home safe. After that the brave ones dip in the freezing water to wipe away their sins, to keep out evil spirits and purify the soul.

I didn’t want to stay for this religious holiday in Kyiv itself, so I went to the village of Zhuravka, in the Chernigivsk region, which is two hours drive from Kyiv by mashrutka (mini-bus). I arrived just in time for water to be blessed.

People wait in line outside Zhuravka church during the festival of Epiphany.

People wait outside Zhuravka church to receive holy water. The water is kept at home during the year to keep the home safe from fire, lightening and sickness.

Blessing of Epiphany Water

It is very important to bath also in holy water to wipe away sins, keep out evil spirits and purify the soul. But there is no river or lake in Zhuravka. So I went with Larisa (an inhabitant of Zhuravka) on foot to the village of Polonki, about four kilometers from Zhuravka. Larisa sang religious songs during our walk. And she prayed a lot as well. She told me the story of her life.  I must say her life is not a very happy one. She was sent to Chernobyl right after the explosion to cook for the people who came to clean up after the disaster. She cannot have children, probably due to radioactive exposure. She married to man from Zhuravka, but he drinks…

Icy bath in the village of Polonki

Larisa takes a dip in freezing water on the Epiphany Holiday. It is believed that a dip into freezing water on January 19 will wipe off all sins, keep out devils and purify a soul.

After icy bath, we filled up one bottle with the blessed water and walked back to Zhuravka. I stayed over night at one babushka’s. I was fed and drank well, I was very glad to be there and that I hadn’t stayed in Kyiv; it was raining there and when I returned everything looked very grey and depressed.

“Samohonka” – home distilled alcohol.

Letter from Ukraine II, 2011

Privet from Kyiv again,

Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, wishes a Happy New Year to all Ukrainians. Hopefully, it will be better than the last one. But Ukrainians are not so optimistic.  Many young people would like to leave the country and each month it seems there are more pensioners and veterans who beg on the streets.

Victor Yanukovich, the Ukrainian president, wishes a Happy New Year.

It’s warm and raining and lamb’s tails are sold on the streets. And we’re only in the middle of January. There was a little snow left on the hill of the Park of Eternal Glory last week. A few teenagers tobogganed under a twenty-one meter obelisk tower which is over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  These kids hope that the snow will continue; winter is no fun without snow.  I also hope it will snow before the 19 of January, which is the day in of the festival of the Epiphany which would be much better with snow.

Park of Eternal Glory, Kyiv

Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya, the Ukrainian patriot, literacy critic and the fighter for the Ukrainian language died. She was 79 years old. Friends and colleagues gathered to say goodbye to her on January 11th at Teacher’s House. Yulia Tymo-shenko came too. Then a mass was held at the church and then the last goodbye took place at the cemetery.

Former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko came to say he last goodbye to Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya.

The last goodbye at the cemetery

At the House of Teacher’s a letter of condolences was read. It was full of appreciation for   Mikhaylina Kotsyubinskaya’s work, appreciation for her fight for the Ukrainian language and culture and much more. I do not remember all as it was quite long. The letter was signed by Victor Yanukovich. As the letter was read, the hall rustled uncomfortably and some people screamed “shame”.  I was shocked too. It is true that Yanukovich lobbied in Ukrainian language during the presidential elections, but his first presidential speech was in Russian.  One might suppose that Michajlina was turning in her grave.

I went to the village of Buyarka on an overcrowded train. It was terrible, we were packed like sardines so I thank God, Buyarka is just five stops from Kyiv. While there I visited three young girls who opened a business with horses. They have eight of them, and if you would like to learn how to ride a horse or just have a ride, then Buyarka is the place to go, but perhaps in summer, when it will be more pleasant.

The horses had to be brushed, their ankles tightened and then we could ride.

The horses had to be brushed, their ankles tightened and then we could ride to the field.  Those of us who joined the activities on foot had to run after the horses. It was very windy and we were freezing even though it wasn’t below zero.

If you would like to learn how to ride a horse or just have a ride, then Buyarka is the place to go.

Riding a horse in the village of Buyarka, Ukraine

I should mention I have started a new photographing project called Living Rooms.  Here are some images I photographed so far:

Letter from Ukraine I, 2011

Privet from Kyiv,

It takes 24 hours by bus to get to Kyiv from Prague. I was lucky — our bus was half empty and all passengers had two seats and some even had four seats as I did. This was great as it meant I could stretch my legs across the aisle and sleep all night. Well, almost all night. A passenger in front of me reclined his seat as far back as he could so I was fully pinned to my seat in rather unpleasant proximity to the man’s sniffing. I cursed the one who invented reclining seats and believe they may be the cruellest innovation ever invented for travel in comfort.

I politely asked man if he could put his seat back and he screamed back to me that he can do whatever he wants and strangely enough, only when he realized I was not Ukrainian he moved his seat back to a normal position.

I went to Ukraine by bus last year and all the passengers were polite and friendly. Something seems to have changed. The New Year’s Eve celebration on Maidan Nezalezhnosti in Kyiv had an entirely different tone than the last year when people were dancing, singing and enjoying themselves. This year they stayed quietly on the square, opening their sparkling wine and sipping quietly. No one applauded when the Ukrainian president, Victor Yanukovich, gave his New Year’s speech and no one seemed excited. The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started and occasionally someone cried out happily in response to the lights and explosion.

The spirit rose a bit when the fireworks started.

One positive thing was that the weather was good – the thermometer was on zero. It seems to me that freezing weather in Ukraine is reserved for presidential elections and revolutions. The weather was great all week and on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) Ded Morozes (Grandfathers Frost), Snegurachkas (Snow Maidens), Zajchiky (Bunnies) and figures form different fairy tales encouraged passers-by to take photographs with them. They wanted Hryvnas 30 (USD 3.50). Children could ride on a Merry-go-round or in carnival trains for free. Or they could persuade their parents to pay for pony rides. Those parents who couldn’t afford any of the attractions at least bought a balloon or inflatable toy for their child for 10 Hryvnas.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

Christmas Holiday on Maidan Nezalezhnosti.

On Maidan Nezalezhnosti the Christmas celebration was in full speed and in the metro underpass babushkas made the best of the holiday as well. More passers-by meant more chances to collect money for their medications. Others were also begging, such as a veteran from the Afghan-Russian war who asked me for money for alcohol. When I asked him about the war, he cried.

Not everyone was there with extended hands — some babushkas played the violin while others were singing. Some were selling Ukrainian’s art crafts and souvenirs.

A woman plays the violin.

Veteran from the Afghan-Russian war.

There was a demonstration in front of the Pechersky district court of Kyiv on January 5th where a criminal case has been opened against former Ukrainian Interior Minister, Yuriy Lutsenko. Yanukovich promised he will fight the misuse of power and impunity among members of the State apparatus. But it seems that criminal prosecutions are aimed exclusively at members of the opposition political parties.

About one thousand demonstrators, mostly pensioners, came to “support” Lutsenko. They held banners with slogans like “Today Lutsenko tomorrow you”, We want fair court of law. But these demonstrators were paid. They received about 30 -50 Hryvnas and the person who finds them received 30 Hryvnas and 5 Hryvnas more for each person he brought to the demonstration. Further, the organizer was paid 100 or even more Hrivnyas. Surprised? Don’t be, it’s normal in the Ukraine.

“Stop terror”

“Today Lutsenko, tomorrow you”

It was very cold this day with the therometer dropping to well below 0. The trial started at eleven in the morning and finished at about two afternon. While it was finished for Lutsenko at least that day, the demonstraters had to wait until six o’clock in the evening to collect their pay. The leader of the Batkivschyna Party and former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, also came to support Lutsenko. She was not outside with the babushkas, of course. And it was probably she who paid these demonstrators.  Surprised again? Don’t be, this is normal in Ukraine.

Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Maybe the young generation can change things; maybe the young generation will be more honest. But for now, it seems they are busy with something else.

Letter from Afghanistan V

Salaam,

I am still in Mazar-e-Sharif even though my visa already expired – on July 15. I sent my application to extend my stay for another month, but the process is very complicated and slow. I had to send my application with a copy of my school certificate; as well as a letter from the Embassy where my Afghan visa was issued. And I had to have invitation letters from the Czech NGO (Non Government Organization) People in Need from Prague as well as a formal request for my stay from my hosts in Afghanistan. All these documents were sent to the Ministry of Economy (PIN is registered there) a week before my visa expired. From there the application will be sent to Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

A couple weeks ago, visas could still be issued in Kabul as well as in Mazar-e-Sharif and others large cities. Not any more. All foreigners must go to Kabul. The authorities make it very difficult for foreigners. They seem to want us out of the country. And I have no news from the Afghan authorities yet about my application, so I really hope I will get some news soon.

Did I complain about weather in the last letter? I did, didn’t I?  I guess it was too early; it was only 42 Celsius, nice and cool weather compare with what it is NOW! Believe it or not:  it has been 48°C the last three days, yes, forty eight in shadow. Our thermometer only registers until 50 Celsius…..it’s crazy.

It has been 48°C the last three days.

It’s not good to stay in the compound all the time, because you’ll go a bit nutty if you do. So I was lucky to have the opportunity to go on another field trip; even it was just for one day in the Toqay district, one and half hours from Kabul.  Uzbek people live there, and women (most of them) do not mind being photographed.

A pregnant woman.

The Afghan parliamentary election is scheduled to take place on September 18th (postponed from May 22nd).   The campaign which kicked off at the end of June will be a major test of Afghanistan’s political progress and security. Depending on how it’s run, the Sept. 18th balloting could be a major advance toward stability; or, if there is fraud on the scale of last year’s presidential elections, a big step backward.

A campaign billboard for candidate standing in the 2010 Afghan parliamentary elections.

In Balkh province my “mission” for the Czech NGO People is finished. In Kabul, I will document a teacher’s training and hope also to document the parliamentary election campaign. My last shoot was in the Toqay district, the ISNA (Income Stability in Afghanistan) beneficiaries: a beekeeper, agriculture nursery and wool processing.

A beekeeper

So goodbye Marghzar, goodbye Zare and Kishindeh. Goodbye  Mazar-e-Sharif, goodbye Balkh.  I am off to Kabul on Saturday.

iva

PS. And I have almost forgot, my visa application is already at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and I will have an answer about my status in couple weeks.

Letter from Afghanistan IV

Salaam,

The security situation has worsened in Afghanistan. It probably has to do with the upcoming elections. The Taliban are coming out, visiting rural areas and recruiting new members, especially young men and boys.  I couldn’t get around freely on my last trip to Zare because rumour had it that the Taliban was present. It is the same situation in Kishindeh and in the other parts of Afghanistan. We worry that the situation will only get worse as the elections draw closer.

Five people have been killed by suicide bombers attacking the office of a US AID-funded organisation in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz. In Kishindeh, one Pakistani and two Afghan engineers were abducted, were released after a few days.

We keep our heads down and consider our every movement, but continue our work. In Zare, a new farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor with a drop-side-truck and wheat thresher from People in Need (PIN). A big ceremony was held, speeches were delivered and the wheat thresher was use for the first time.

A big ceremony was held.

Farmer’s cooperation now has their new tractor.

Wheat thresher was use for the first time.

Everybody was happy. We were happy that the tractor, drop-side-truck and wheat thresher arrived safely at its destination and that members of this new farmer’s corporation were happy having their new machines. It took seven minutes to thresh one bag of grain, whereas normally it would take one full day of driving several donkeys or cows in a circle to thresh this amount of grain.

A boy driving donkeys in a circle to thresh grain.

Husk must be separated from the grain.

The weather continues to be unbearably hot.  Our two dogs live during the day in our bathroom cooling themselves on tiles. In our office, an air conditioner works sporadically. It’s an endless struggle.

My feet are becoming like Afghan feet – heels dry and cracked from just wearing sandals in the hot weather and there is a constant thin film of dirt. I wear scarf, well, I am trying to wear a scarf. It always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled — not good in the rural areas. Ah! If I use safety pin, I look like Russian babushka.

Scarf always slides from my head and my hair is unveiled.

I wear also a long dress with long sleeves because women must cover their arms fully. I borrow one dress from a friend, and the second one I had sewn here in Mazar-e-Sharif.

There are three genders in Afghanistan: women, men and foreign women.  Foreign women have more privileges than Afghan women. They do not have to wear burqas, just a scarf. They do not have to hide their faces. They can eat together with the men, talk to them and even joke with them. And Afghan men have a great sense of humour.

In recent weeks, I documented the People in Need (PIN) mission, the Cash for Work (CFW), Food Facilities (FF), and the Water and Sanitation (Watsan) projects. Cash for Work gives payment to people who build roads. The Food Facilities program was building granaries and flood barriers. For Watson, I photographed pumps and the construction of water reservoirs.

A group of boys fill canisters at a water pump supplied by the NGO People in Need.

I am trying to extend my visa, but it’s a long and difficult process. I need a diploma from my school, a work permit, an invitation…..and I need lots of patience. I decided to apply only for exit visa.  Hopefully I will get ten days extra. My visa expires on July 15th so with these additional ten days, I will have to leave on July 25th.

I still have to photograph beneficiaries of the Income Stability in Afghanistan (ISNA). And I would like to go to Herat (city in western Afghanistan) to see Fraidoon, my Afghan friend. Still, many things to do in a short time, eh? Time is flying here; it seems to me I just arrived a week ago.