What it feels like… to be a photojournalist in a war zone

While on assignment in October 2016, I visited an oil field and refinery bombed by ISIS in Al-Qayyara, Iraq.

I wasn’t there for the explosion itself, but when I arrived, the fire was still raging on – and would continue at least until the end of the year. This is because it typically takes months to put out a blaze like that.

A burning oil field is a terrible thing because the streets, people’s skin and even white sheep turn completely black from the billowing smoke and ash.

That’s just one of many stories I have from working as a female photojournalist in Kurdistan for seven years – but it was incredibly difficult.

In 2010, I got a job in Kurdistan – where I’m from – to photograph everything from the frontline in ISIS-controlled war zones to refugee camps full of thousands of displaced people fleeing persecution.

It’s impossible to imagine how many obstacles and challenges women face every day in the Middle East – just for trying to do their jobs. This is especially true as a female photojournalist in a male-dominated industry.

I’ll never forget what I witnessed (Picture: Bnar Sardar)

Men wanted to draw a line for me to stop me from travelling alone, going shopping or doing any normal thing in my life – especially in those areas where there is war, conflict or political arguments.

Often, I’d take my camera to a place like a local market and I’d be forced to leave because people did not like that I was taking photos – and because I am a woman. This was incredibly annoying and frustrating.

I’d also be held in checkpoints because I was travelling alone to other cities and they’d ask me extremely baseless questions, like why I was alone and what agency I worked for.

One time, I was even stopped for half an hour and asked at a Democratic Party of Kurdistan checkpoint why I was wearing a green scarf because it was the colour of their rival political party, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

When I made it to the frontline, I’ll never forget what I witnessed.

In 2014, I was taking photos in Al-Hamdaniya – in the north-east of Mosul – and I saw a young brother and sister who were gravely injured in a bombing attack. The boy’s stomach had been blown wide open and his intestines had come out of his body – there was blood everywhere.

It was the first time in my life that I had seen someone so badly hurt and within about 10 minutes, I felt lightheaded from it all and fainted.

Festival in Iraq

I’m studying English and I’d love to continue my career as a photojournalist (Picture: Bnar Sardar)

I also witnessed first-hand what the conflict was doing to people all across the country – through my time documenting the lives of those who have been displaced in refugee camps.

One of my biggest passions during my time as a photojournalist was being a voice to women and children who suffered from domestic violence and being able to show how war affects women specifically. They should have their own voice and rights, and I wanted to help be the microphone for these issues.

The most powerful job I completed was a project called Two Religions, One Roof. In it, two families from different religions – Muslim and Christian – lived in the same house in Kirkuk with their respective families.

The Christian family came from Mosul, while the Muslim family were from Al-Falluija, but they had both escaped ISIS. A man in Kirkuk had space in his home and invited both families to stay with him.

They were bonded through simple things like drinking tea in the afternoon and sharing stories with each other about how they worship.

Despite their religious differences, these two families lived in harmony. I spent eight months with them and my photos helped show that in a time of sectarian violence, these two families could co-exist.

Sometimes being a female photojournalist simply was just not possible at all to grant me the access I needed to do my job.

Woman praying

I am grateful for this life (Picture: Bnar Sardar)

So as part of covering a Winter festival in Iran in February 2017, I had to cover my hair because females were not allowed to attend certain parts of the festival for religious reasons.

On the first day of the festival, I witnessed the cooking of a traditional soup using the same recipe that’s been around for almost 1,000 years. The rest of the community go to their rooftops and watch the ritualistic dance of the Dervishes to the music of Daf.

The dance is very unique to the event and it’s another example how two main religions in the area – Zoroastrianism and Islam – can co-exist.

All of that feels like a distant memory, now that I live in Bristol as a refugee.

I am grateful for this life, especially to charity organisations like Bristol Refugee Rights, who have helped support me to feel much safer than when I was working in the Middle East.

I’m studying English and I’d love to continue my career as a photojournalist, but it’s not easy when you have to study another language. 

I never want my passion for photography to disappear.

City in Iraq

Each photograph I’ve taken has impacted me immensely (Picture: Bnar Sardar)

Since arriving in the UK, I’ve contributed my photos to a photo series run by Witness Change called 1,000 Dreams – it helps to share the stories of refugees by refugees themselves.

It’s completely different to my previous work in Kurdistan because of the political instability there.

Everyday there is a new story about ISIS, honour killings of women, conflict between political parties, bad economic situation, lack of basic human rights and the disruption to the education system. That’s why I’m proud to have told the stories I did.

Each photograph I’ve taken has impacted me immensely and I will never forget them all.

Sometimes reliving those memories is like a nightmare and I can vividly recall the distant screams of a past life or a father crying over losing his children or grandchildren.

I’m grateful to be alive today to be able to tell my story.

Refugee Week (14 to 20 June) is a UK-wide festival celebrating the contributions of refugees. For more information, visit the Refugee Week website here.

In this exciting new series from Metro.co.uk, What It Feels Like… not only shares one person’s moving story, but also the details and emotions entwined within it, to allow readers a true insight into their life changing experience.


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