How a father's face told us all we need to know about Syria
Published 22/08/2015 | 02:30
It is not easy to capture two of the greatest challenges of our time - the bloody conflict wracking Syria and the resulting refugee crisis at Europe's door - in a single image that feels instantly iconic.
This week, Daniel Etter, a German photographer based in Barcelona, did just that with a poignant shot of a Syrian refugee family taken within minutes of their arrival on the Greek island of Kos.
The photograph shows Laith Majid overcome with relief as he holds his two children tight, his face hinting at what they had fled from and what they had endured on their way out. Majid carries his daughter in one hand as he cups his son's head in the other. His daughter, wearing a tiny green life jacket, grips her father tightly around the neck as he looks somewhere in the distance, his face roiled with emotion as he realises they have finally reached a place of safety.
The image has gone viral, shared tens of thousands of times across the world since it was first published by the 'New York Times' on Sunday. In capturing a moment of such raw emotion, it has humanised a crisis of immense scale and geographical dispersal and helped remind Europeans, in particular, of the people behind the headlines as the EU contemplates how to deal with the number of refugees seeking sanctuary within its borders. My tweet of the photograph, noting that it showed "An entire country's pain captured in one father's face" garnered thousands of responses. For those of us who have reported on the Syrian conflict and now despair over how little media coverage it gets, it was heartening to see how Etter's image drew attention to a war that has forced millions from their homes and shows no sign of ending soon.
The same week the photograph of the Majid family went viral, the Syrian government bombed a busy marketplace in the town of Douma, killing at least 112 of its own citizens, many of them children. The air strikes received little media attention despite being one of the deadliest attacks since 2011.
According to Etter, Majid and his wife, an English teacher, left Syria with their children two weeks ago. They fled their home in Deir Ezzor, a region of eastern Syria which has been pummelled by regime forces and where Isil has controlled large swathes of territory since last year.
They paid $6,500 to get on a small rubber dinghy for the journey from Turkey to Kos. Etter told 'Spiegel Online' the family came ashore early in the morning with eight others, though the boat, which had begun leaking air during the trip, was designed to carry just three people.
"After more than two hours of driving, the boat had lost air, water had leaked into it, the refugees were soaked when they arrived at the shore. They were then completely relieved to have arrived safely," he said. "In that moment, it all came at them together, the joy of having done it; the love for their family; the grief over what had happened."
Etter, who has been documenting the refugee crisis for some time - I met him in Libya last year where he took harrowing images of squalid detention centres where refugees are held - says he has never been so moved by an image. Looking at the photograph of the Majid family afterwards, "tears came again and again," he told 'Spiegel Online'. "That's never happened to me before."
On his Facebook page, Etter shared a message he received from a man who had served aboard an Irish naval vessel conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. The Irish navy's LÉ Eithne and LÉ Niamh have rescued more than 5,000 refugees and migrants from rickety boats since they deployed earlier this year. Thanking Etter for the photograph, the former crew member wrote: "We avoided images such as this to avoid a negative minority at home from accusing us in the military of using propaganda to pull at the heart strings of the public at home.
"This man's anguish and his love for his children pour out of your image and it is a look that I saw in the faces of countless people as we took them from the boats.
"Thank you for taking it and I am delighted to see it go across the world. People need to be awakened to the plight of their fellow humans.
"In my 18 years of service to my country, I have helped maybe save the lives of two or three people but have searched the ocean many, many times looking to bring home the remains of those lost at sea to their loved ones.
"This summer I had the privilege of helping to save the lives of nearly 3,400 people and my colleagues who replaced us have saved almost 2,200 so far."
Majid and his family are now being housed in a ferry the Greek government is using as temporary accommodation for Syrian refugees. They want to eventually go to Germany.
Overwhelmed by the reaction to his powerful image, Etter says: "This is why I do what I do."