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Dreams crushed by a beast

| blog, L&B World, Mexico, United States | July 28, 2015

A migrant runs to catch a train in the Chacamax community, Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

(AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


"It is 35 degrees out, and the humidity is close to 100 percent. We are tracking a freight train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast), as it rumbles from the southern border of Mexico towards the United States," writes Daphné Lemelin. "This train is part of the history of migration. Hundreds of thousands have ridden it in pursuit of their American dream. Many have been attacked, robbed, mutilated or even killed in the process."



By Daphné Lemelin


A migrant runs to catch a train in the Chacamax community, Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

A migrant runs to catch a train in the Chacamax community of Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


PALENQUE, Mexico, July 28, 2015 – It is 35 degrees out, and the humidity is close to 100 percent. We are tracking a freight train known as “La Bestia” (The Beast), as it rumbles from the southern border of Mexico towards the United States. This train is part of the history of migration. Hundreds of thousands have ridden it in pursuit of their American dream. Many have been attacked, robbed, mutilated or even killed in the process.

The train is moving at more than 40 km/h as it passes through the station in Tenosique, much too fast for the dozens of young migrants hoping to hoist themselves on board.

We set off in pursuit of the youths – myself, a text reporter and a photographer. We run beside them in the darkness, along the tracks. Only one manages to cling on. A dozen others, several of them minors, are left dejectedly behind. Some are angry, others resigned: this is not their first try.


Migrants are seen on board a train in Salto del Agua, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 19, 2015.  ( AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants are seen on board a train in Salto del Agua, Chiapas State on June 19, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


It’s a frustrating experience for us, too. We are here to film youths clinging onto the train. We have only five days - already a luxury - to document the migrant crisis in this region, where countless children risk the difficult and dangerous journey to Mexico’s far north. We also want to report on the rising numbers of arrests and what rights groups have denounced as violent police raids targeting migrants.

In the distance, we spot a teenager walking in the dark. I approach him. He eyes me suspiciously, glancing at my video camera. He has no time to talk, he says. He is trying to reach the next town along the railroad. I let my camera fall down below my shoulder, and engage him in conversation. Juan opens up, little by little. As I sense the trust building, step by tentative step, my camera finds its way back up onto my shoulder.


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Like tens of thousands of central American minors, Juan is fleeing the violence, gangs and drugs plaguing his native Honduras. He looks like a child, hands hooked through the straps of his backpack. But his words are those of an adult. “I’m not afraid,” he tells me. “If they kill me, they kill me. But I’m going to keep moving.”

We part ways around 10 pm, leaving him on the tracks at Tenosique as we return to our hotel, exhausted by a 14-hour day spent chasing the iron monster. Juan walks on into the night, despite the exhaustion of 600 kilometres travelled in a few days.


A migrant walks in Chacamax, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

A migrant walks in Chacamax, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


The following day, our hunt for La Bestia resumes. We follow its tracks, from station to station, through remote villages and rural lanes. Nothing to report. At least nothing that has not been shown many times before.

But these past two days we have seen dozens and dozens of migrants struggling along narrow trails, weighed down by the hundreds of kilometres they have already travelled, and the thousands that still lie ahead.


Migrants walk along the train tracks in the Catazaj community in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 19, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants walk along the train tracks in Palenque, Chiapas State on June 19, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


Ethical principles in reporting can sometimes look different when you are out in the field. Can you, should you intervene in the awful human situations you are witnessing? Can you allow yourself to influence the lives of people whose story you are telling?


Off-camera moments, building trust


We decide to get involved. We offer water, bananas and biscuits to the migrants we meet. We tend to one person’s blister, to another who cut themself on branches while running from the police, yet another who suffered a deep gash to the head falling from La Bestia, or another with a nasty insect bite…

These off-camera moments also feed into our work. Those are the times when migrants tell us about their lives, their dreams, their problems. Some will later agree to be filmed. Others prefer to remain anonymous. Sometimes trust is built through the simplest human interactions.


AFP reporters perform first aid on a migrant in Chiapas State in June 2015 (AFP)

AFP reporters perform first aid on a migrant in Chiapas State in June 2015 (AFP)


It’s a Saturday. We’re in Palenque, 80 kilometres further north. Night has fallen. There in the moonlight, dozens of migrants are spread out along the rails, on the lookout for the train. Alfredo, our photographer, approaches a group to make contact. One of them turns out to be Juan.


A human face to the tragedy


It’s a journalistic opportunity: a chance to put a human face – that of childlike Juan - on the plight of tens of thousands of kids. We can follow a slice of the life of this young migrant, from his arrival in Mexico, to the point where he boards a train heading north.

But you can’t humanise a story without getting close to the person in question. We spend a long time talking with the young Honduran, our cameras switched off.


Migrants wait for a train in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants wait for a train in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


We share coffee and cigarettes. We talk about God, about the future. A fleeting camaraderie grows between us. When a complete stranger shares with you their closest secrets, it’s bound to trigger a strong of dose empathy – something reporters cannot always allow themselves. How could you possibly report on the worst human tragedies if you let every story eat you up inside?


Beaming, victorious


The train gets moving. Without a moment’s hesitation, Juan and his companions start running, trying to find the best spot to jump on board. Nothing - not stones or branches - will keep them from scaling the iron monster that could take them to their American dream.


Migrants travel on board of a train in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants travel on board of a train in Palenque, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


Our photographer and I set off in pursuit. Juan runs, jumps over prickly bushes, stumbles, picks himself up, and finally manages to grab onto a ladder. Alfredo and I run, trip but manage to get a picture of this instant. Juan has tamed the train. He waves down at us, beaming, victorious.

He knows we are here to film police raids. He also knows we have witnessed part of his dream.


AFP reporter Daphne Lemelin jumps from a train in Palenque, Chiapas State in Mexico, after filming migrants on board on June 20, 2015 (AFP / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

AFP reporter Daphne Lemelin jumps from a train in Palenque, Chiapas State after filming migrants on board on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


Ten kilometres down this road, which we’ve travelled before in pursuit of the train, we spot a vehicle belonging to the immigration police. We approach with our headlights off – a heated debate taking place in our car. Should we let them know we are here. Should we hide?

We go for a half-way solution. Slowly, we cross the tracks. The police and other men in plain clothes are getting ready for a raid. Some are armed with guns, others with truncheons.


An agent of the Mexican Immigration Service is seen during an operation in San Mateo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

An agent of the Mexican Immigration Service during an operation in San Mateo, Chiapas State on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


The wait begins. We are on a tiny side road that appears only as a faint, thin line on my satellite navigation system. Luckily, there is a phone signal. One of us alerts the human rights committee that a police raid is taking place in our vicinity. Another sends our satellite position to the AFP bureau in Mexico.


Surrounded by the police


"OUUUUUUT". The train is here. La Bestia draws to a halt with a groan. My camera is running. I want to capture every second of this. We approach the tracks – slightly worried the police could turn on us.


Migrants are detained by agents of the Mexican Immigration Service in San Mateo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants are detained by the Mexican Immigration Service in San Mateo, Chiapas State on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


Police aim their flashlights at the wagons, at the simple dwellings nearby and the surrounding rainforest. I film the officers at work, watching out of the corner of my eye in case some of the migrants try to make a run for it. A group of them is surrounded by the police.


A look that says 'Traitors'


"Get down, get down!” We see Juan forced to climb off the train. His hopes in tatters yet again.

In the light of my camera, he seems lost, miserable and angry all at once. The immigration police lead him away, along with his unfortunate companions, towards the “perrera” – the dog pound as their van is known. Some of the migrants, who shared coffee and stories with us, give us a look that to me says: “Traitors - you gave us up.”


Migrants are detained by agents of the Mexican Immigration Service in San Mateo, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 20, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants are detained by the Mexican Immigration Service in San Mateo, Chiapas State on June 20, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


The van’s door slams shut on Juan’s American dream. He will be deported to Honduras. For the second time.

The camera is still running.

Back in the car, the adrenalin is starting to fall back down. And a question is gnawing at us. Should we have tried to warn them of the raid? Should we have asked for their phone numbers to do so? Even if we had those numbers, would we have made the call?


Migrants are seen on board of a train in Chacamax, Chiapas state, Mexico, on June 21, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants on board a train in Chacamax, Chiapas State on June 21, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


The question stays hanging there. The camera is off. We get going again.

Since we did not warn them, we are better able to tell the story of these thousands of migrant kids, facing immense danger in hope of a better life. Because we didn’t warn them, Juan will be deported to Honduras. And will start all over, without missing a beat, in his attempt to reach the United States.

This teenaged boy whose dream was crushed by a train holds a special place in the labyrinth of my memories as a journalist. Juan is a tragedy with a human face, the human face of a tragedy.

Daphné Lemelin is an AFP-TV journalist based in Mexico


Migrants board a train in Palenque, Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 19, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/ALFREDO ESTRELLA)

Migrants board a train in Palenque, Chiapas State, Mexico, on June 19, 2015 (AFP Photo / Alfredo Estrella)


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A rail ticket to Europe

| blog, Hungary, L&B World, Serbia | July 22, 2015

The baby of Syrian migrants sleeps in the waiting room of the train station of the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia on July 16, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

(AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


"Early this month my work took me from Sofia to the far east of Bosnia for the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre," writes the photographer Dimitar Dilkoff. "Before heading home I took the chance to stop in Serbia and see for myself the migration of hundreds of people heading north towards the European Union."

"Most of these migrants come from Muslim countries and many in the Balkans say they are terrorists. That, in any event, is the fantasy, what people imagine from afar. Because when you see these people it is plain – to me anyway – that they are just ordinary families making a long and difficult journey."



By Dimitar Dilkoff


The baby of Syrian migrants sleeps in the waiting room of the train station of the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia on July 16, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

The baby of Syrian migrants sleeps in a train station waiting room in the southern Serbian town of Presevo on July 16, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


SOFIA, July 22, 2015 – Early this month my work took me from Sofia to the far east of Bosnia for the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. Before heading home I took the chance to stop in Serbia and see for myself the migration of hundreds of people heading north towards the European Union.

I had heard of - and my AFP colleagues had reported on - the many migrants crossing into Serbia from Macedonia, bound for the Hungarian border. For much of their arduous journey from the Middle East and further afield, these families travel on foot.


Migrants sleep in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia on July 16, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

Migrants sleep in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia on July 16, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


In Macedonia for example they were banned from taking public transport, until the authorities recently changed the rules. In Serbia, they can take a train or bus to get to the Hungarian border – but to do so they must obtain a 72-hour transit pass from the authorities. In the town of Presevo, the first they reach after crossing from Macedonia, the authorities have set up a huge camp – housing maybe 1,000 people, maybe more – to accommodate the waiting crowd.


Migrants are pictured through a window as they wait for papers at a migrant center in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, on July 15, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

Migrants are pictured through a window as they wait for papers at a centre in Presevo on July 15, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


Many were exhausted after a two- or three-day wait to get permission to travel – some staying inside the migrant centre and others sleeping rough. Without the permit the police would arrest them, and send them back to Presevo. This was also in the middle of a heatwave – with temperatures of 35 degrees. It’s very tough on them.


Children and their parents wait to apply for asylum and get documents to legalise their stay in Serbia for 72 hours,at a migrant centre in the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, on July 16, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

Families wait to apply for asylum and legalise their stay in Serbia for 72 hours, at a migrant centre in Presevo on July 16, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


I heard there was a train soon to leave for Subotica in the far north of Serbia, so after two days in Presevo I made plans to catch it to document the migrants’ onward journey. In the end it turned out there were only six people on board, so I changed plans and took a train linking Thessaloniki to Belgrade – which was full of migrant families.

There were perhaps 70 to 100 migrants who boarded in Presevo for the 10-hour journey, some travelling in groups, some alone – many were families, with young children and even babies. I also photographed a group who boarded a train from Nis to Belgrade.


Migrants sleep on a train heading north from Nis to Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

Migrants sleep on a train heading north from Nis to Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


We spoke a little as I asked permission to photograph them – enough to hear that they were from Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. They didn’t say exactly where. Many were trying to get to Germany and Sweden, and some of the Pakistanis to Italy.

It was worth spending time documenting this phenomenon – these migrations towards the European Union are quite simply the biggest news story in the Balkans right now. The number of people stopped crossing the Serbia-Hungary border alone has jumped by more than 2,500 percent in five years, from 2,370 to more than 60,000, according to Amnesty International


A young migrant coming from Syria sleeps on a train heading north from Nis to Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

A young migrant from Syria sleeps on a train from Nis to Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


My feeling is that many people here in the Balkans have forgotten that their own grandparents were migrants in the 20th century. They have forgotten the lives of their forebears.

I have seen people with very good intentions, helping migrants by giving them food and water in Presevo and elsewhere. But there are also many people in the Balkans who view them as enemies – not just Serbians or Macedonians or Bulgarians but people all across the region.


A Pakistani migrant travels on a train bound for Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

A Pakistani migrant travels on a train bound for Belgrade, early on July 18, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


That partly reflects anti-Muslim prejudice in parts of the Balkans. Most of these migrants come from Muslim countries and people say they are terrorists, members of the Islamic State group.

That, in any event, is the fantasy, what people imagine from afar. Because when you see these people it is plain – to me anyway – that they are just ordinary families making a long and difficult journey.

Dimitar Dilkoff is an AFP photographer based in Sofia. This post was written jointly with Emma Charlton.


A migrant family walks on a road near the southern Serbian town of Presevo, near the border with Macedonia, on July 15, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

A migrant family walks on a road near Presevo on July 15, 2015 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


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The long wait in Vienna

| Austria, blog, Iran, L&B World | July 15, 2015

A worker brings compact air conditioners to the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held, in Vienna, Austria on July 7, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

(AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


"''You're still here?' It’s a sign you’ve been away a long time, when even the hotel receptionist is surprised to see you at breakfast," writes Helen Percival as she wraps up her coverage of the marathon Iran nuclear talks in Vienna. "That was nearly two weeks after I arrived, and several days before the talks concluded with a deal more than a decade in the making. But of course we didn’t know that at the time."



By Helen Percival


A worker brings compact air conditioners to the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held, in Vienna, Austria on July 7, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

A worker brings compact air conditioners to the Palais Coburg Hotel during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 7, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


VIENNA, July 15, 2015 - «You’re still here?» It’s a sign you’ve been away a long time, when even the hotel receptionist is surprised to see you at breakfast.

That was nearly two weeks after I arrived in Vienna. And several days before the decade-long talks concluded with a landmark deal on Iran’s nuclear programme. But of course we didn’t know that at the time.

Fresh off the plane my enthusiasm to be covering the events sharply contrasted with the many journalists who had already been camped outside Palais Coburg for a week. And then there were those who had been following these talks for months, some even years.


Journalists work and rest in a tent outside the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 9, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR)

Journalists work and rest in a tent outside the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 9, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


While the daily grind was clearly taking its toll on everyone - even leaders regularly mentioned the long hours and hard work - the sense of moving toward a historic denouement kept spirits reasonably high.

So you can imagine the fall-out after the EU’s chief diplomat Federica Mogherini announced on the day of the official deadline that it wasn’t being extended – but that they were taking the extra hours they needed to complete the deal.

After that, rumours swirled on a daily basis. And conversations were dominated by when and if a deal might be reached.

The waiting game continued.


Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shouts from a balcony of the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 13, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif shouts from a balcony of the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 13, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


As each day passed, the leaders themselves made regular reference to the late hours, patience and determination. Iran’s foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif even shouted from one of his balcony appearances that he was ‘tired and overworked’.

A particularly dispiriting moment came when a journalist asked Zarif if the deadline would be reached. He turned his eyes heavenwards and said ‘Inshallah’.

Several days after the official deadline had passed, during what’s called a round table opportunity– when the press are allowed in for 45 seconds to photograph the negotiators seated around a table, Kerry was seen to be rubbing his temples, and stony faces had replaced the usual smiles and jokes.


EU top diplomat Federica Mogherini gestures from the balcony of the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna during the Iran nuclear talks on July 13, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO/JOE KLAMAR)

EU top diplomat Federica Mogherini gestures from the balcony of the Palais Coburg Hotel during the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna on July 13, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


The mood in the press centre grew increasingly dejected, as days passed and the same lines of ‘progress but difficulties’ were churned out.

The waiting game was punctuated by the daily delivery of ice cream to the press centre, which got journalists moving just as fast as one of Mogherini’s surprise appearances at the balcony.

During the three weeks of talks, we had worked in 40 degree heat, thunderstorms and high winds. But those ice creams were always a welcome sight.


French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius (4th L) briefs French journalists at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks were being held, in Vienna, Austria on July 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR)

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius briefs journalists at the Palais Coburg Hotel on July 14, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


On Monday, July 13th, almost a week past deadline date, the mood in the camp lifted. Rumours of an agreement swirled. And were readily gobbled up by tired, listless journalists. 

For the first time we set up camp outside Palais Coburg into the early hours of the morning.

Then word spread that a deal had been reached with Iran, and would be formally announced the following day. Relieved by the news, most of us snatched an hour or so of sleep before gearing up for the final push.


The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, the United States and Austria talk prior to their final plenary meeting at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR)

The foreign ministers of France, Germany, Britain, the United States and Austria talk prior to their final plenary meeting at the United Nations building in Vienna on July 14, 2015 (AFP Photo / Pool / Joe Klamar)


Desperate to get the best spots, journalists queued outside the conference room at the UN centre in Vienna, creating a bottleneck as more reporters filed down the escalators.

It would seem that the waiting game was not yet quite over.

To capture the best shots of this historic moment, a number of photographers thoughtfully removed their shoes to stand on chairs – unfortunately engulfing the rest of us in a fug of sweaty feet.

At that point even some of the most hardened cameramen, who had stayed at the helm in all weathers outside Palais Coburg, looked desperate to abandon ship.


Six world powers and Iran hold a final plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015, where they reached a nuclear deal capping over a decade of negotiations (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JOE KLAMAR)

Six world powers and Iran hold a final plenary session at the United Nations building in Vienna on July 14, 2015 (AFP Photo / Pool / Joe Klamar)


And, at last, there was an official announcement. Members of the P5 + 1 looked satisfied if a little shell-shocked. Our final reports were filed on the historic deal, kit was packed up for the last time, and the realisation slowly sank in.

Over quite a few cold beers the AFP team, who all knew far more about uranium enrichment than could ever possibly be useful, reflected on the previous, extraordinary days and months.

Whilst relieved this landmark moment had finally come to pass, there was also a sense of loss, and a certain disappointment at the thought of returning of normality. Having anticipated this moment for so long, the cameras had left, the limelight had shifted, and the waiting game was finally over.

Helen Percival is an AFP video journalist based in London.


US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the stage after a picture with foreign ministers and representatives from China, Iran, Britain, Germany, France, and the EU in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA)

US Secretary of State John Kerry leaves the stage after posing for a picture with foreign ministers and representatives from China, Iran, Britain, Germany, France, and the EU in Vienna, Austria July 14, 2015 (AFP Photo / Pool / Joe Klamar)


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Whipped by the sharia police

| Aceh, blog, Indonesia, Islam, L&B World | July 13, 2015

An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' reacts after being lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

(AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


"It's not clear if the caning itself was responsible for the young woman collapsing, or the trauma of being punished so publicly before an enormous crowd," writes Nurdin Hasan, an AFP correspondent in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Islamic sharia law, where public canings for "immoral acts" have been on the rise.



By Nurdin Hasan


An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' reacts after being lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese woman convicted of 'immoral acts' is caned in public in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015 

(AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Public canings for "immoral acts" have been on the rise in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to implement Islamic sharia law. Nurdin Hasan offers a first-hand account of one such caning in the provincial capital Banda Aceh.


BANDA ACEH, Indonesia, July 13, 2015 - It's not clear if the caning itself was responsible for the young woman collapsing, or the trauma of being punished so publicly before an enormous crowd.

Lashed four times, the university student fainted as she was taken by sharia police from the stage, erected outside a mosque in downtown Banda Aceh for a public caning after Friday prayers.

She wasn't alone on the dais. Five other university students - all unwed and aged between 18 and 23 - and a woman in her 40s were paraded by sharia police and public prosecutors in front of a large crowd, their heads bowed. One man put his face in his hands, avoiding the stares and jeers.


An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' is lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese woman convicted of 'immoral acts' is caned in public in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015 

(AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


The older woman had been charged with adultery. The three young couples were caught by sharia police alone with each other – something forbidden in Aceh outside marriage.

Such behaviour is acceptable elsewhere in Indonesia but not in this deeply-religious province, the only one in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country allowed to implement Islamic law.


Sharia in wake of tsunami


The westernmost province was granted a degree of autonomy in 2001 in a deal with Jakarta aimed at quelling a decades-long separatist movement, including the right to implement sharia law.

The devastating tsunami that struck Aceh in 2004, leaving some 170,000 dead in Indonesia and tens of thousands more in countries round the Indian Ocean, provided the impetus for the central government and rebels to finally strike a peace deal.

The province maintained its broad autonomy and has been steadily implementing a growing number of sharia regulations since.


An Acehnese woman convicted for pimping reacts while lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese woman convicted of pimping is caned in public in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Some of the bylaws in the devout province are extreme by Western standards. Women are forced to sit sideways on motorcycles in some parts of the province because straddling is deemed lewd, and laws have been passed prohibiting unmarried couples from riding together at all.


100 whipped this year


Punks have had their heads shaved and piercings removed before being bathed in public and sent to re-education classes. Sharia police roam the streets at night in search of people committing "immoral acts", independent of the regular police force.

Canings began in 2005, and have been on the rise ever since. Roughly 100 Acehnese have been whipped this year alone.


An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' prepares for her punishment to be administered by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese woman convicted of 'immoral acts' prepares to be caned in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Though commonplace elsewhere in Aceh, this caning was the first of the year in the bustling capital, and roughly 1,000 people had turned out for the macabre spectacle.

There are few entertainment outlets in the city, and the local authorities actively encourage citizens to get involved.


Children in the crowd


The atmosphere is rowdy in the town square as the students, clad in white gowns, are brought from the paddywagon to the stage.

Insults are hurled at those awaiting punishment. Young children are among those jostling for a view, despite being technically forbidden from attending the public events. Camera phones are held aloft for a snap.


An Acehnese woman convicted for 'immoral acts' reacts while lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese woman convicted of 'immoral acts' is lashed at a public caning in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Female officers from the sharia police, one at each arm, bring forward the women, who are knelt down as their charge is read out by a prosecutor.


Goaded to strike harder


Shrouded from head to toe in dark cloth, with a slitted mask leaving just the eyes exposed, a hooded figure - a specialist from the sharia police known as an "algojo" - steps forward bearing a metre-long length of rattan cane.

For years the algojo could raise his arm no higher than shoulder height, but that was revised in 2013 to allow for more vigorous swings.


An Acehnese man convicted for 'immoral acts' prepares for punishment to be administered by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese man convicted of 'immoral acts' prepares for his public caning in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015 

(AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Kneeling, the terrified students can do little but squeeze their eyes shut and grimace as the cane comes whizzing down. The algojo is goaded into striking harder by the crowd, and disappointment sets in if the punishment is deemed less than the offence.

Unwed people found fraternising with the opposite sex face three to nine lashes; gamblers six to 12. Those caught drinking in the devout province are threatened with 40 lashes. From October, if the Acehnese parliament agrees to a new provision, the range of acts punishable by caning will expand.

An Acehnese man convicted for 'immoral acts' is lashed by a hooded local government officer during a public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

An Acehnese man convicted of 'immoral acts' is lashed by a local government officer in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Couples caught kissing in public could face up to 45 lashes, while homosexuals found guilty of gay sex risk 100.

While the laws seem harsh on paper, many regulations are in practice not strictly enforced or followed.

The province is home to beautiful scenery and some popular spots for surfing and diving, and draws a small number of foreign visitors every year.

Overseas tourists are not exempt from sharia law, and a new regulation passed last year means Islamic regulations now apply even to non-Muslims. But there have not been reports of foreigners being punished under sharia law and Acehnese are generally welcoming of visitors as long as they dress “modestly” in public places and refrain from public displays of affection.


Acehnese women convicted for 'immoral acts' are seen inside a paddywagon following their punishment by public caning at a square in Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on June 12, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / Chaideer MAHYUDDIN)

Acehnese women convicted of 'immoral acts' sit inside a paddywagon following their public caning in Banda Aceh on June 12, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Chaideer Mayhuddin)


Many in Aceh feel the laws don't go far enough. There have been calls for officials found guilty of corruption - a common bugbear in Indonesia - to face the cane, but most know it's unlikely to happen.

Locals grumble that those in high office are spared the cane even when caught indulging in “lewd” behavior, pointing to a respected community leader who was arrested in a salon with women unrelated to him two years ago without consequence.

The students are given no such leniency. Their humiliating ordeal lasts just over an hour, until they are taken away, the crowd dispersed, and the stage dismantled.

Nurdin Hasan has been a regular contributor for AFP from Indonesia's western province of Aceh since 2000.


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Nightmares and miracles in Srebrenica

| blog, Bosnia, L&B World | July 11, 2015

An elderly Muslim couple are treated for injuries inflicted by Serb forces as they fled the east Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. The man on the right died shortly afterwards. (AFP PHOTO/Odd ANDERSEN)

"It’s the summer of 1995. I am on a reporting assignment in Croatia when I get a call from AFP’s chief editors. Can I go to Bosnia? Srebrenica has just fallen to Serb forces," writes Nadège Puljak, who covered the influx of refugees in the nearby town of Tuzla, alongside the AFP photographer Odd Andersen. "Of course, I answer yes."



By Nadège Puljak


A Bosnian woman embraces a grave stone during a mass burial of 775 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Potocari memorial cemetery near Srebrenica on July 11, 2010 (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

A Bosnian woman seen during a mass burial of 775 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre at the Potocari memorial cemetery on July 11, 2010 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


PARIS, July 11, 2015 – It’s the summer of 1995. I am in Croatia to cover French army manoeuvres being staged there on Bastille Day, when I get a call from AFP’s chief editors. Can I go to Bosnia? Srebrenica has just fallen to Serb forces.

Of course, I answer yes. Do you have money to get there? None at all. A car? Nope. In fact I can’t even drive, a rarity for a journalist. But I have learned that when out in the field, be it in South Sudan, Romania or Gaza, you can always count on little miracles to help you along the way.

My first miracle occurs at Split airport.

I am pacing around the departure lounge looking for journalists who, like me, are trying to head towards Srebrenica, when I stumble across a young women pacing in the opposite direction.

“You wouldn’t be French by any chance,” I venture. “Yes I am!” “Can you drive a car?”. “Yes I can!”


This March 2005 file photo shows a general view of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, with its mosque (L) and Orthodox church (R) ( AFP PHOTO / STRINGER)

This March 2005 file photo shows a general view of the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, with its mosque (L) and Orthodox church (R) (AFP Photo / Stringer)


She turns out to be a fellow reporter from Le Monde, who will be my teammate throughout this difficult assignment. Together we a recruit a third colleague, a tall fellow from the Italian daily Corriere della Sera, to make up our crew.

We still have no money. But suddenly I hear someone shouting “Nadège, Nadège!”

Miracle number two: it was a journalist friend from France 2 television, on his way home to Paris, with a spare $5,000 in cash. Which France 2 kindly lent to AFP for the duration of our mission to Bosnia.


Avoid being shot at


We are ready to leave for Tuzla, the nearest town to the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in northern Bosnia that is accessible to journalists. To my knowledge there are no journalists in Srebrenica itself. It would have been risking their lives.

The road is long, winding and dangerous. We travel in convoy with other journalists, on the advice of the UN peacekeepers, to avoid being shot at. We are in an unmarked rental car, so we make sure to stick close to a large jeep marked PRESS.


Picture dated 10 July 1995 of a Dutch UN post near the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica before Serb forces brushed aside the Dutch peacekeepers, overran the zone. (UN-DUTCHBAT/PETER VAN BASTELAAR)

Picture dated 10 July 1995 of a Dutch UN peacekeeper post near the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica just before Serb forces overran the zone. (UN / Dutchbat / Peter Van Bastelaar)


At one point we stop in a town called Zenica to stock up on supplies. I knew the town from before the war, having family in the area.

But as I walk into a cafe I find myself face to face with about 100 guys glaring at me. Mujahedin as we used to call them back then. Armed with Kalashnikov rifles and dark, menacing looks. I leave as fast as I can.

We arrive in Tuzla and head to the airport, where we discover a surreal scene.


Bloody feet, ragged clothing


The airport is right next to a wood. Beyond the wood lies Srebrenica. And we watch as half-starved men emerge in little clusters from the trees, after spending days on the run.

On the runways the NGOs have set up trestle tables laid out with orange juice, thermos flasks of coffee, all that’s needed to welcome the escapees. It reminds me of a Gymkhana or a village fete.

Except these people have not run a marathon. They have just escaped from death.


An elderly Muslim couple are treated for injuries inflicted by Serb forces as they fled the east Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. The man on the right died shortly afterwards. (AFP PHOTO/Odd ANDERSEN)

An elderly Muslim couple are treated for injuries inflicted by Serb forces as they fled Srebrenica. The man on the right died shortly afterwards. (AFP Photo / Odd Andersen)


The men we see emerging with bloody feet and dirty, ragged clothing, from the woods, are among an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 men and boys from who fled as Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, a UN-protected enclave that the peacekeepers proved powerless to defend.

They were hoping to reach Muslim-controlled territory on foot. Close to 8,000 of them would be slaughtered. Among those who survived, around 100 would make it to Tuzla while I was there.

Poor desperate people, thirsty, frightened. Men who do not know what has become of their families.


Raped and murdered


And they tell us of the nightmare. A man around 40 years old, seeing I can understand a little Serbo-Croatian, clings on to me. I can still feel his hot arm on mine, his nails digging into my skin.

He grips my arm tightly, and pleads: “Help me my find my daughter!” He tells me she boarded a bus in Srebrenica, but that the soldiers made her get off again. He tells me she is 13 years old.

Most of the women of Srebrenica were evacuated along with the children towards Tuzla. Except the prettiest ones. Who were raped, and in most cases murdered by Serb fighters.


Bosnian Muslim women cry during a funeral of the remainds of their relative, victum of the Srebrenica massacre in the village of Potocari, 11 July 2005. (AFP PHOTO / DIMITAR DILKOFF)

Bosnian Muslim women cry during a funeral of the remainds of their relative, victum of the Srebrenica massacre in the village of Potocari, 11 July 2005 (AFP Photo / Dimitar Dilkoff)


I don’t catch everything he is saying, but I understand quite clearly when he begs, “Help me!”, “My daughter!”. He is as if crazy. And there is nothing I can do. I still dream of it 20 years on.

They tell us how the Serb fighters track down the fugitives. They trek through the woods calling out typical Bosnian Muslim first names. Tricked into thinking they have found a friend in their flight, the men emerge from their hiding place and are shot dead.

I am devastated by what I am seeing, and hearing.


Not lying


Some of my journalist colleagues are suspicious, still scarred by the case of Timisoara in Romania six years earlier, in which Western media picked up fabricated testimony about mass graves containing the bodies of tens of thousands of people.

I am certain they are not lying.

Later on I go to report on the work of a man who is caring for young rape victims - those whose lives were spared. We go there in a team with my colleague from Le Monde, for the sake of safety but also for moral support.


A Bosnian Muslim woman wipes her tears while around 300 recently identified bodies of Bosnian Muslim men are transported from Sarajevo to Srebrenica, 09 July, 2003 (AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC)

A Bosnian Muslim woman wipes her tears while around 300 recently identified bodies of Bosnian Muslim men are transported from Sarajevo to Srebrenica, 09 July, 2003 (AFP Photo / Elvis Barukcic)


As we arrive we are told that one of the young women hanged herself the day before. For these young Muslim women, in addition to the trauma, to be raped is seen as a terrible stain on their honour. For some of them, unbearable. All of the young women present had been raped. None of them wished to speak with us. We didn’t insist.

I later saw that a French weekly had published a photo of the hanged girl. I resented them for doing so. A story like this one forces you to stop and think about the work we do as journalists.


Not for me to judge


At the time the Dutch UN peacekeepers were heavily criticised for their failure to intervene in Srebrenica. But I remember interviewing a Dutch captain who was doing all he could to assist the survivors. It is not for me to judge them. Especially when you consider that none of the other powers did anything to prevent the massacre.

In Tuzla, I am staying on the 12th floor of a grand hotel. On the 15th, there is a patio where all the radios and TVs are set up. From time to time the Serb forces fire a shell in our direction and everyone lays belly-down on the floor behind a little wall around the patio.


Bosnian Muslim Nura Alispahic, formerly of Srebrenica, by a picture of her son who was shot dead by Serb forces,  at her home in Tuzla on 04 June 2005 (AFP PHOTO / ELVIS BARUKCIC)

Bosnian Muslim Nura Alispahic, formerly of Srebrenica, is shown at her home in Tuzla on 04 June 2005 beside a picture of her son who was shot dead by Serb forces 10 years earlier (AFP Photo / Elvis Barukcic)


I will soon be joined by an AFP photographer equipped with a satellite transmission case. But in the meantime, that first day in Tuzla, I have no computer, no phone, no means to send the story I have just written up by hand on a piece of paper.

Cue my third miracle.

I am sat on a stairway with my story in my hand, wondering how on Earth I am going to get my story into print. Two well-known French journalists have just refused to lend me their phones - this is a huge story and competition is sharp among the press pack. Then suddenly I hear, in Hebrew: “Hey, how are you?”

It’s an Israeli journalist friend, who promptly lends me his phone so I can file my story to AFP.

I come home from Bosnia on July 23. I remember it well because the 24th was a Sunday and on Monday 25th I went back to work to try to shake off the horrific memory of Srebrenica.

That same evening, Paris was struck by a terrorist attack in the St Michel underground station in the Latin Quarter. It was the first of a wave of attacks that would rock France, and mobilise AFP’s journalists myself included, all through the summer of 1995.


Forensic experts work in a mass grave in the village of Budak, located some two-and-a-half kilometers from a memorial center for the massacre victims, just outside the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica, 09 July 2005 (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

Forensic experts work in a mass grave in the village of Budak, near Srebrenica, 09 July 2005 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


For my AFP colleagues based in the region, though, the story of Srebrenica was far from over.

“Srebrenica was the place I could never get to during the fighting,” recalled my photographer colleague Odd Andersen, who was based in Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war. “A few brave colleagues did manage the journey there and their tales and images were always the envy for us who did not make it.

“When the enclave was overrun in July 1995, I was in Oslo and scrambled to get back to Bosnia, flying to Split and driving to get to Tuzla where the influx of refugees had started. As the town itself was constantly being shelled by Serb forces, most of the refugees sought shelter at the airport.

“In a day or two the runway in Tuzla was turned into a sprawling refugee camp with Swedish UN soldiers struggling to provide water and basics for the thousands who made it through the gates, and the many more that decided to camp just outside the perimeter.

“The people with the worst injuries were cared for at a Norwegian UN field hospital in Tuzla.


ICTY investigators work on top of a cluster of bodies, many of them with their hands tied in the back and blindfolded, at a mass grave outside Pilica, some 55 km east of Tuzla on 18 September, 1996 (AFP PHOTO / ODD ANDERSEN)

ICTY investigators work on top of a cluster of bodies, many of them with their hands tied in the back and blindfolded, at a mass grave outside Pilica, some 55 km east of Tuzla on 18 September, 1996 (AFP Photo / Odd Andersen)


“I relocated to Tuzla in November 1995 to set up an AFP bureau there waiting for the US NATO troops, part of the Dayton peace agreement, to arrive.

“Within months of the NATO troops settling in, amid protests by survivors, investigators from the war crimes tribunal in The Hague started their work."


Seeing horror for ourselves


“I spent the whole summer of 1996 finally getting to places that Serb forces had spent the previous three years denying media access to. Here we could see with our own eyes the evidence of the harrowing tales the survivors had told us a year earlier.

"We spent months with the war crimes tribunal investigators as they opened up mass graves.

“The hills littered with human remains, and the smell of the open graves are still fresh in my memory despite having burned every piece of clothing and shoes after leaving eastern Bosnia for good in late 1996.”

Nadège Puljak is an AFP reporter based in Paris. Odd Andersen is an AFP photographer based in Berlin


Bosnian Serb officers tried over the Srebrenica massacre, top L to R: Vujadin Popovic, Ljubisa Beara, Drago Nikolic, Ljubomir Borovcanin and bottom, L to R, and Vinko Pandurevic, Radivoje Miletic, Milan Gvero and Milorad Trbic (AFP PHOTO)

Bosnian Serb officers tried over the Srebrenica massacre, top L to R: Vujadin Popovic, Ljubisa Beara, Drago Nikolic, Ljubomir Borovcanin and bottom, L to R, and Vinko Pandurevic, Radivoje Miletic, Milan Gvero and Milorad Trbic (AFP)


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Returning to Gaza

| blog, Gaza, Israel, L&B World | July 9, 2015

A combination of pictures shows (top) destroyed buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip on July 26, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

(AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)


"The 50-day war between Israel and Hamas had just begun when I entered Gaza on July 10, 2014," writes the AFP video journalist Andrea Bernardi. "A year later I find myself back at the iron gates leading to the Erez border crossing. Everything is the same. And everything is different."



By Andrea Bernardi


A combination of pictures shows (top) destroyed buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip on July 26, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

Destroyed buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip on July 26, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)


GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories, July 9, 2015 - The 50-day war between Israel and Hamas had just begun when I entered Gaza on July 10, 2014. A year later I find myself back at the iron gates leading to the Erez border crossing. Everything is different. And everything is the same.

Today beyond the vast terminal, you no longer hear the echo of explosions from Israeli artillery or the sound of drones. You no longer see the white trails of Hamas rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel throughout the conflict.


(Video: Little hope in Gaza ruins a year after war)


But the Israeli private security at the border still eyes you suspiciously as you enter the terminal and the lady at passport control hasn’t changed her questions: What’s your father's name? How long will you stay in Gaza? A stamp on a white paper, one in the passport and you’re in.

A year ago, at the end of the long corridor was a no man's land. It was Ramadan then, too. Explosions rang out continually, sending huge columns of smoke up into the air, all along the border between Beit Lahia and Beit Hanun.


A combination of pictures shows (top) Palestinians fleeing their destroyed neighbourhood on a donkey cart in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun on August 18, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on April 14, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX)

Palestinians fleeing their destroyed neighbourhood on a donkey cart in the northern Gaza Strip city of Beit Hanun on August 18, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on April 14, 2015 (AFP Photo / Thomas Coex)


The path from into Gaza still begins with a long walkway past the Israeli military watchtowers. The Palestinian guy who offers to take your bags at the end uses an electric caddy instead of an old motorcycle with a box strapped on it for the luggage. This time I can catch a yellow taxi, rather than wait for hours in the hope a car will give me a ride.

Fatah officials are back at work. They check passports inside a white plastic cubicle with the air conditioning turned so low your arm freezes when handing them your documents. In front of them is a row of chairs for waiting travellers. A few too many, perhaps, for the rare people who are actually able to cross out of Gaza.


A combination of pictures made on July 3, 2015, shows (top) Palestinian men riding a donkey cart past destroyed buildings in the northern Gaza Strip on August 5, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

Palestinian men ridr a donkey cart past destroyed buildings in the northern Gaza Strip on August 5, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Mahmud Hams)


The Hamas check for luggage and passports is 500 meters ahead. A missile landed on it just as I crossed into Gaza last year, causing no casualties but shattering the place. Back then, two Hamas policemen in civilian clothes had simply moved a few hundred meters away to an old building. They had no computers and merely recorded my name on a piece of paper. Today they are seated in a cubicle, scanning passports, permits and letting you in with a ‘Welcome to Gaza’.


A combination of pictures shows (top) a Palestinian boy sweeping the ground outside destroyed buildings in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on July 22, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 6, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB)

A Palestinian boy sweeping the ground outside destroyed buildings in the southern Gaza Strip town of Rafah on July 22, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 6, 2015 (AFP Photo / Said Khatib)


A year ago the road from Beit Hanun to Gaza City was a desert. It was the second day of air raids. The shops were shuttered and the streets full of debris. Later, during brief lulls in fighting, residents would venture out for a few hours to find food or breathe a little fresh air.

By now, daily life is back in full flow. Stores have reopened and women can be seen walking everywhere in their dark clothes. Police are out on the streets trying in vain to direct the traffic.


A combination of pictures shows (top) a collapsed minaret of a destroyed mosque in Gaza City on July 30, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MAHMUD HAMS)

A collapsed minaret of a destroyed mosque in Gaza City on July 30, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Mahmud Hams)


It's been a year, but the memory of last summer is fully alive. Everywhere you go, with everyone you speak to. The war is still there in people’s minds.

We enter the neighborhood of Shejaiya from the same street we used during a two-hour ceasefire last year, the night after Israeli sent ground forces into Gaza. Today you can drive in. Back then the paramedics had to climb over rubble to retrieve bodies. I still recall every spot where I saw a dead body. Today the area is full of children playing.


A Palestinian man dressed as a clown performs during an event for children in front of destroyed houses in Gaza City's Shujaiya neighbourhood on July 8, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

A clown performs for children in front of destroyed houses in Gaza City's Shujaiya neighbourhood on July 8, 2015 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)


As I drive through Beit Lahia I pass a small door in a side street behind the hospital. I vividly remember bodies being carried out of there on people’s shoulders towards the nearby cemetery. I remember hundreds of angry people standing outside it every day waiting to pay a last tribute to their loved ones. Today the door is closed. It seems that area of the hospital is no longer in use.

The clean-up is almost complete in the areas along the border that were flattened by Israeli artillery and strikes. The people left homeless by the war are still there, living in makeshift tents beside the ruins of their homes. But for those who witnessed the destruction in the days after the conflict it is difficult to recognize it as the same place.


A combination of pictures shows (top) a ferris wheel and the rubble of buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip on July 26, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / MARCO LONGARI / MOHAMMED ABED)

A ferris wheel and the rubble of buildings in the northern district of Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip on July 26, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Marco Longari / Mohammed Abed)


A year ago there was despair. Today the mood in Gaza has turned to resignation. But the people I met there have not entirely lost hope. Some hope the UN refugee agency will give them money to rebuild a roof over their heads, or to leave Gaza. No matter where. Especially the young, those in their 20s who dream of Europe, America, or simply of Ramallah.

A year ago cameramen and photographers crowded onto rooftops in Gaza trying to capture images of an air strike or a rocket fired toward Israel. One year on a normality of sorts has returned to the tiny Palestinian enclave.


A Palestinian family gathers for the iftar meal breaking the Ramadan fast in the rubble of buildings in Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Strip on July 6, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / MOHAMMED ABED)

A Palestinian family gathers for the iftar meal breaking the Ramadan fast in the rubble of Beit Hanun, northern Gaza Strip on July 6, 2015 (AFP Photo / Mohammed Abed)


From the seafront terrace of the Al-Deira hotel, I look to the small harbour with its wooden fishing boats and men busy cleaning up their nets after the daily catch. This is the beach where a group of children were killed while playing last summer. I can still see the kids running toward us and disappearing in a cloud of black smoke. One of the most horrific things I ever saw. 

This week I saw the Palestinians of Gaza enjoy beautiful sunsets on that same beach, where restaurants serve up the evening 'iftar' meal to families breaking their daily Ramadan fast, as the children splash in the waves of the Mediterranean.

Andrea Bernardi is an AFP video journalist covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Follow him on Twitter


A combination of pictures shows (top) smoke billowing from a beach shack in Gaza City following an Israeli military strike which killed four children on July 16, 2014, and the same place (bottom) on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX / MOHAMMED ABED)

Smoke billowing from a beach shack in Gaza City following an Israeli military strike which killed four children on July 16, 2014, and the same place (bottom) seen on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Thomas Coex / Mohammed Abed)


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Patience an acquired virtue at Iran talks

| Austria, blog, Iran, L&B World, United States | July 8, 2015

Journalists gather outside the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 2, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

(AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)

"In the frenetic, 24-hour news cycle world of instant messaging, Tweets, Snapchats and texts, patience has almost become an outmoded, lost virtue," writes AFP's Jo Biddle. "But for 12 days now, more than 500 accredited journalists gathered in Vienna for the last stages of the talks to curb Iran's nuclear programme have become experts in killing time."



By Jo Biddle


Journalists gather outside the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 2, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

Journalists gather outside the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 2, 2015. (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


VIENNA, July 8, 2015 - In the frenetic, 24-hour news cycle world of instant messaging, Tweets, Snapchats and texts, patience has almost become an outmoded, lost virtue.

But for 12 days now, more than 500 accredited journalists gathered in Vienna for the last stages of the talks to curb Iran's nuclear programme have become experts in killing time.

Teams from seven countries are working around-the-clock behind closed doors bargaining and haggling over every word of what will be one of the world's most complex non-proliferation agreements ever.

They are seeking to reach a deal on curbing Iran's nuclear programme for the next decade at least, and in return agreeing ways to lift a web of international sanctions which have mushroomed over the years.


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (R) and U.S. Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman (L) meet with fellow foreign ministers in Vienna, Austria on July 7, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / POOL / CARLOS BARRIA)

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman meet with foreign ministers taking part in the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna, Austria on July 7, 2015 (AFP Photo / Pool / Carlos Barria)


Each word is weighed, debated and pondered to ensure the deal is as water-tight as possible and stands up to global scrutiny.

For the reporters from around the world trying to cover the negotiations however, information is sparse, days are long and confusion reigns. No one really knows which way this could go.

In the height of absurdity, reporters travelling with US Secretary of State John Kerry found out Tuesday that the talks would bust through that day's deadline when the hotel staff put up a notice saying their stay had been extended - ahead of the official announcement from the EU about an hour later.


Federica Mogherini (R), EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, speaks to journalists at the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held, in Vienna, Austria on July 5, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, speaks to journalists at the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 5, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


Even at this late stage and after 12 days of wrangling, the official delegations gathered in the Austrian capital are preparing for three scenarios - success, failure and yet another extension of an interim deal that was brokered back in November 2013.

Only those deep in the talks know what is really going on, and while they come out occasionally to drip-feed some snippet of information to hungry news crews, incredibly little of what has already been put to paper has leaked.


viennacafes.jpg

The cafes of Vienna, in July 2015 (AFP / Jo Biddle)


Luckily, Vienna is a beautiful city. So for some the first few days were an unexpected chance for some sight-seeing.

There were visits to the Belvedere museum which houses Gustav Klimt's "The Kiss," shopping trips to find bargains at the summer sales, bike rides around the city, even dips in the Danube to cool off in the hot summer sun.


An Austrian policeman refreshes himself with an ice cream outside the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are held, in Vienna on July 3, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

An Austrian policeman cools off with an ice cream outside the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 3, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


Some intrepid teams even hired cars and visited neighbouring Slovakia, or ventured into the Austrian mountains resplendent with summer flowers.

One afternoon, Spike the security dog and his handler provided some entertainment with his obedience tricks, becoming an instant star for idling cameramen.

But as the days stretched past a week and neared two weeks, the mood turned glum.


A journalist waits outside the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 3, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

A journalist waits outside the Palais Coburg Hotel in Viennan on July 3, 2015. (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


"Do you know anything?" "When are we going home?" people would ask. "How many times can I write the same thing?"

Some used the time wisely to cram up on the technicalities of nuclear power and the arms industry, or to try to navigate through the maze of international sanctions imposed on Iran.


reservationwide.jpg

Discovering the Iran talks have been extended, again. (AFP / Jo Biddle)


The large media tent erected in the shadow of the Coburg Hotel, where the talks are being held, as well as the ground-floor cool cafe in the next-door Marriott Hotel has become a gathering place.

American journalists who rarely have contact with their counterparts from places like Iran and Russia, not exactly known for their press freedom, cheerfully greet each other, exchange stories and email addresses.

The generous Austrian hosts have laid on free coffee, tea and iced water. And in the afternoons a small fridge is wheeled in stacked with a choice of ice-cream. It empties fast.


A journalist rests outside the Palais Coburg Hotel where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are being held in Vienna, Austria on July 3, 2015. (AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

A journalist rests outside the Palais Coburg Hotel in Vienna on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


And at night outside the tent, groups can be seen sharing an improvised picnic using folding chairs as tables, lit by camera lights.

Surprisingly apart from a few heated phone exchanges with frustrated editors wanting to know what's happening, tempers have rarely flared despite creeping boredom and long stretches of inactivity.

Most of the journalists here have followed the twists and turns of the talks for almost two years, and sensing that they are on the cusp of witnessing an historic agreement between old adversaries, they want to be part of the story.


cake.jpg

Celebrating the fourth of July far from home, at the US ambassador's residence in Vienna (AFP / Jo Biddle)


But it often requires hard choices.

One journalist missed their father's 101th birthday, another has to go to a funeral just as the talks could reach a climax, someone else's wife is just days away from giving birth.

One reporter faces possible difficulties because his visa is due to expire any day now, while yet another is stuck in Vienna while the family is preparing a trans-Atlantic move from Washington in just a matter of days.

Yet few want to bail, and so the waiting games goes on, and no-one has a clue when it will end.

Jo Biddle is an AFP correspondent at the US State Department. Follow her on Twitter.


Cameras and tripods reflect in a glass entrance of the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are held, in Vienna on July 3, 2015.(AFP PHOTO / JOE KLAMAR)

Cameras and tripods reflect in a glass entrance of the Palais Coburg Hotel, where the Iran nuclear talks meetings are held, in Vienna on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Joe Klamar)


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The crying man

| blog, Greece, L&B World | July 7, 2015

A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis crying outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


"Suddenly a man emerged from the bank yelling and gesturing, holding in his hand a savings book and his ID card," writes the AFP photographer Sakis Mitrolidis, who took the viral picture of a Greek pensioner weeping on the street. "Immediately I picked up my camera and started shooting. The poor man. After seconds he collapsed to the ground."

"Some people have suggested it is THE defining picture of the Greek crisis. I don’t see it that way. I think it tells part of the story."



By Sakis Mitrolidis


A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis crying outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis, outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki on July 3, 2015 

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


THESSALONIKI, Greece, July 7, 2015 – I knew it would be a hard week, possibly the hardest in six long years of this crisis. On the Saturday Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras had called a surprise referendum on the international bailout for Greece. Two days later, as fearful Greeks rushed to empty their accounts, the country’s banks were closed to save them from collapse.

Each morning I was outside the banks at 6.30 am, taking pictures as pensioners queued and pushed each other, many losing their temper at me for photographing them. These were people tired from so many years of working, and now this.


Pensioners sit waiting outside a national bank branch, as banks opened only for pensioners to allow them to withdraw their pensions, with a limit of 120 euros, in Thessaloniki, on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

Pensioners wait outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


It was Friday, day five of the bank closure. As usual, I was outside a national bank branch where 50 to 60 elderly people had gathered. Few Greek pensioners have credit cards – many are nervous about ATMs, and feel safer dealing in person with a cashier. That’s why the government had allowed some bank branches to reopen so retirees could withdraw part of their pensions in cash.


A security guard carries a case with cash as pensioners queue outside a national bank branch, as banks only opened for pensioners to allow them to get their pensions, with a limit of 120 euros, in Thessaloniki on 3 July, 2015 (AFP PHOTO /Sakis Mitrolidis)

A security guard carries a case with cash as pensioners queue outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki on July 3, 2015 (AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


I was there taking pictures from 6.30 to 8.00 am when the doors opened and the queue started to dissipate. I was ready to leave when suddenly a man emerged from the bank yelling and gesturing, holding in his hand a savings book and his ID card.


A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis gesturing outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


Immediately I picked up my camera and started shooting. The poor man. After seconds he collapsed to the ground and started weeping. Together with some fellow reporters from a TV channel, we approached and asked him what was upsetting him so.

The 77-year-old Giorgos Chatzifotiadis told us a story that is by now well-known: he had already queued at three banks in Thessaloniki in hope of withdrawing 120 euros of a pension on behalf of his wife. When he was turned away at a fourth, he broke down.

We returned together to the bank and asked an employee to see to his problem. Fortunately they were able to help him.


A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis crying outside a national bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


"I see my fellow citizens begging for a few cents to buy bread,” he told me afterwards. “I see more and more suicides. I am a sensitive person. I cannot stand to see my country in this distress. That's why I feel so beaten, more than for my own personal problems.”

Back in my office, when I saw the pictures on the monitor, I understood this was a powerful series. The composition, the papers scattered beside him, the policeman coming to help, the people watching as they queued, and the old man himself.

I sent up the images early morning and by noon - judging from the response on Greek websites - I could already see their impact. I must say I was not expecting a huge success, and I was surprised.


A July 3, 2015 photograph shows Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis being assisted by a bank employee and a policeman outside a bank branch in Thessaloniki (AFP PHOTO /SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


Late that evening the Athens office told me the picture had gone viral. It was the first time I experienced something like this, and I admit feeling proud. But part of me felt worried too. On the eve of a crucial referendum the force of this image had the potential to affect people emotionally, and influence them one way or another.

But at the end of the day, it’s my job to inform people and let them draw their own conclusions.

The following day I tried to track down Mr Chatzifotiadis but he had already left the city. Instead I spoke with his daughter over the phone. She told me she was deeply moved and saddened on behalf of her father. She told me he and his wife had worked hard, for many years, as emigrants to Germany. They returned to Greece a few years ago as pensioners to be near their children and grandchildren.


This picture taken on July 3, 2015 in Thessaloniki shows 77-year-old Greek pensioner Giorgos Chatzifotiadis (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

(AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


I understood this was a decent family and I can say I felt sympathy for this gentleman. I too have many relatives who worked and still work in Germany. They left the country in the 1960s because of poverty, and went there to find a better life, as young people do now. Thessaloniki may be Greece’s second largest city but it also harbors unemployment and poverty on a large scale.

Some people have suggested it is THE defining picture of the Greek crisis. I don’t see it that way. I think it tells part of the story. There have been many amazing pictures, these past few days and these past six years, taken by photographer colleagues – among them Aris Messinis and Louisa Gouliamaki from AFP in Athens who have supported me all these years.


A woman passes a newspaper kiosk with journal headlines showing the results of Greece's referendum, in Thessaloniki, on July 6, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / SAKIS MITROLIDIS)

A woman passes a newspaper kiosk with headlines showing the results of Greece's referendum, in Thessaloniki, on July 6, 2015 (AFP Photo / Sakis Mitrolidis)


Since this shot was published I received calls and emails from around the world, most of them very kind and encouraging. There was also an email from someone in Germany who told me my picture did not reflect reality, and that the Greek crisis was provoked by the media.

Immediately came to mind the answer Pablo Picasso gave to a Nazi officer who asked him, looking at a photograph of ‘Guernica’: “Did you do that?” “No,” Picasso is said to have replied. “You did.”

Ultimately, this crisis is really one we Greeks are experiencing every day. There are many stories out there which do not get tremendous coverage in the media, but which each day are hurting and exhausting our proud but hopeful nation.

Sakis Mitrolidis is an AFP photographer based in Thessaloniki. This post was edited by Emma Charlton.

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Sleepless nights, smoke and mirrors

| blog, European Union, Greece, L&B World | July 6, 2015

A motorcylist with his passenger holding a Greek flag passes in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens on July 5, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


"There are times in journalism when you are so busy, or so tired, that you barely notice a little bit of history passing in front of your eyes," writes AFP's Danny Kemp from Brussels.

"After five years of the Greek debt crisis, five years of talks, five years of stalling, the leaders of the eurozone had finally thrown Athens to the lions. They finally, really did it."



By Danny Kemp


A sticker reads 'No' on the palm of a protester ahead of the Greek referendum, in Athens on July 3, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

A sticker reading 'No' on the palm of a protester ahead of the Greek referendum, in Athens on July 3, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


BRUSSELS, July 6, 2015 - There are times in journalism when you are so busy, or so tired, that you barely notice a little bit of history passing in front of your eyes.

After ten feverish days of Greek debt crisis in Brussels that included two summits, five Eurogroup meetings and two days of late-night talks between the Greek prime minister and his creditors, it was mainly the tiredness that was getting to us.

Grim-faced and in the grey suit which the Brussels press corps knows him to wear when delivering bad news, the head of the Eurogroup, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, had an announcement to make.


Dutch Finance Minister and president of Eurogroup Jeroen Dijsselbloem gives a press conference during a Eurogroup meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on June 27, 2015. (AFP PHOTO/ JOHN THYS)

Dutch Finance Minister and Eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem addresses the media during a Eurogroup meeting in Brussels on June 27, 2015 (AFP Photo / John Thys)


A day earlier, Greece had caused chaos with the shock announcement of a referendum on its negotiations with creditors.

In response, Dijsselbloem told the press, the Eurogroup had refused Athens's request for an extension to its international bailout programme, meaning that Greece would default on an IMF payment a few days later.


Late nights in soulless caverns


AFP had already run the information, several minutes earlier, after obtaining it from two well-placed but anonymous sources, but we still put out a flurry of news alerts.

Exhausted by a week and a half of late nights in the soulless caverns of the EU's official buildings, the whole Brussels press corps was by now running on adrenaline, coffee and junk food, pumping out the news without quite knowing how.


German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to address a press conference at the end of an emergency leaders summit on Greece at the European Council on June 22, 2015 in Brussels. (AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand)

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the end of an emergency leaders summit on Greece at the European Council on June 22, 2015 (AFP Photo /Emmanuel Dunand)


When an official came to hand out a statement from the Eurogroup meeting, there followed one of the most feral journalistic displays I have ever seen, as the assembled hacks, myself included, fought to grab a copy.

There was nothing there we had not already heard in Dijsselbloem's speech. Except, at the bottom, a tiny footnote, the first of its kind since the single currency was founded: "Supported by all members of the Eurogroup except the Greek member".

In the frantic typing and the sleeplessness, came a sudden moment of clarity.

They finally, really did it.


Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras gestures within his address to the Greek Parliament in Athens on June 5, 2015.  (AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the Greek Parliament in Athens on June 5, 2015

 (AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)


After five years of the Greek debt crisis, five years of talks, five years of stalling, they had finally thrown Athens to the lions. The euro, the EU, the post-war project of a unified Europe, would never be the same again. Greece had, effectively, been consigned to a footnote in euro history.


Smoke and mirrors


What made it more of a milestone was that moments of clarity have been so few and far between in the torturous negotiations since Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras came to power in January.

During 11 years in foreign postings with AFP, I've dealt with quite a few shady characters - Pakistan's ISI intelligence agency, the Taliban, the Myanmar junta, Libyan rebel groups, the spin doctors of Downing Street to name but a few - but when it comes to sheer smoke and mirrors, nothing compares to the Greek talks.


A motorcylist with his passenger holding a Greek flag passes in front of the Greek Parliament in Athens on July 5, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

A motorcyclist and passenger holding a Greek flag passes in front of the parliament in Athens on July 5, 2015 

(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


Just as Greece has now become the first advanced economy to default on an IMF loan, everything about the Greek story seems far removed from the way reporters are used to working in the relatively well-ordered political and economic systems of the western world.

Nothing is ever as it seems, and nothing is ever simple.

Reporters are used to spokespeople trying to lead them up the garden path but with the Greek story it has become an art form. On one typically frustrating day when Tsipras was meeting European Commisssion chief Jean-Claude Juncker, officials refused to tell us who else would be involved in their "working dinner".

It soon became clear that what no one wanted to say was whether Dijsselbloem would be there. It was a sensitive issue for the Greeks, who did not want their prime minister to look as if he was being dictated to by the hardline Eurogroup chief.


Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) ahead of a meeting on Greece, at the European Commission in Brussels,on June 24, 2015 (AFP PHOTO/POOL JULIEN WARNAND)

Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras (L) is welcomed by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) ahead of a meeting in Brussels on June 24, 2015 (AFP Photo / Pool / Julien Warnand)


By 9 pm we still didn't know so we went for dinner. On the way back to the office an AFP colleague had a sudden hunch that some important sources could be in one of the restaurants near the Commission. We looked in through the windows of a couple of restaurants and suddenly there were our sources, in a burger joint.

Our intrepid colleague dived straight in and we followed him. After some banter and shared commiserations about another late night ahead, they finally told us what we needed to know: Dijsselbloem was going to be joining the dinner. We left them to it and went to file.


The personalities, the clashes


Brussels may not have the most glamorous image, and it is hard to feel glamorous at three in the morning waiting for a tweet from the Slovakian finance minister. Certainly the idea of summits stretching into the night in the world's most bureaucratic city may not have been my idea of fun a few years ago.

But watching up close the weeks of double-dealing, the personalities, the clashes, has been fascinating.


Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (L) speaks with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde prior to a eurozone finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on June 18, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / THIERRY MONASSE)

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (L) speaks with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde prior to a eurozone meeting in Luxembourg on June 18, 2015 (AFP Photo / Thierry Monasse)


We watched the normally icy International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde lose her cool at a press conference recently, complaining that they needed to have "adults in the room" to reach a deal with the Greeks, to audible gasps from the waiting journalists. We have watched the collapsing relationship between Juncker and Tsipras, which started out with matey hugs whenever they met, but has since descended into acrimony, with Juncker delivering a long monologue after the referendum was called in which he complained of being "betrayed" by the Greeks.

Again, despite all the spin, it is all more reminiscent of the more disordered politics I have seen in more ostensibly chaotic parts of the world.

The dealings with anonymous intelligence sources when I was based in Pakistan and Afghanistan between 2004 and 2008 were about terrorism and war, but the method in Brussels is the same - offers of information or help by officials we can't name, sometimes with an agenda to pursue.


Danny Kemp (Front L) with fellow AFP reporter Selim Saheb Ettaba (Front R) in Libya in 2011 (AFP / Marco Longari)

Danny Kemp (Front L) with fellow AFP reporter Selim Saheb Ettaba (Front R) while covering the Libyan revolution in 2011 (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)


On one occasion in Pakistan we had interviewed the Peshawar police chief in the morning about the rise of a local militant group. That evening the police chief's spokesman called back to offer us a meeting - with the head of that very same militant group, of whose whereabouts they earlier denied all knowledge. I couldn't believe my ears, but the offer appeared to be genuine.


Double games


We thought long and hard but in the end we declined, as the offer meant travelling into Pakistan's dangerous tribal areas on the Afghan border, with no guarantee of security except the policeman's assurances. Needless to say, the offer only deepened in our minds the widespread suspicion that Pakistan was secretly backing the Taliban and some of the militant groups who were fighting US troops in Afghanistan.

You see similar, if less dramatic, double games in Brussels. The week before the Greek negotiations finally broke down there was much talk of a final deal being struck, with Juncker's head of cabinet tweeting that a last-minute offer from Athens was a good basis for an agreement. Anonymous European sources then told us the same, talking up the chances of a long-awaited deal.

The only trouble was, it became clear during the course of the week that it was nothing of the sort. Germany and other key eurozone powers said they weren't convinced. And then, as Juncker and Tsipras met late into the night, it emerged that most of the Greek offer evaporated when they got into the details. The talks ended with no deal and deep recriminations from both sides. But both appeared to have calculated behind the scenes that it would look good for them to seem keen on a deal, hence the spin from the sources.


Pakistani soldiers patrol the streets of the violence-hit Pakistani capital during a break in the curfew imposed in the area of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad, 07 July 2007 (AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN)

Pakistani soldiers patrol the streets of the violence-hit capital during a break in the curfew imposed in the area of the radical Red Mosque in Islamabad, July 7, 2007 (AFP Photo / Marco Longari)


The echoes between both situations run deeper, to a fundamental uncertainty about the future of a country or an international institution. In Pakistan we spent a week under curfew in the bureau as armoured personnel carriers surrounded the militant Red Mosque. As we listened to fighting raging through the night, the very stability of the country seemed at stake. There is the same feeling now, albeit no longer in dangerous circumstances, as we wait in Brussels conference rooms to see whether Greece will avoid economic collapse and stay in the euro.

For Greece the next page of history remains almost impossible to read at this point.

The only thing we can be sure of, whatever the result: it will mean lots more European summits in Brussels.

Danny Kemp is AFP deputy bureau chief in Brussels. Follow him on Twitter


A young woman walks past a graffiti called 'Death of Euro' by French street artist Goin, in central Athens on June 19, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

A young woman walks past a graffiti called 'Death of Euro'  in Athens on June 19, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


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Clamouring for cash on the streets of Athens

| blog, Greece, L&B World | July 2, 2015

Pensioners try to enter a national Bank branch, as Greece reopened banks for pensioners who do not use cash cards for ATM, to allow them to withdraw their pension with a limit of 120 euros, in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)


"We knew there would be ugly scenes, as Greece said it was opening its beleaguered banks for three days to allow elderly people to draw cash," writes the photographer Aris Messinis. "People shoving, yelling in anger at hapless bank employees. In six long years of crisis, we have seen images like this any number of times. It’s sad. But it’s the reality and your job is to record it."

"Images like these are very powerful, and make you think they are the whole story. In truth they are only part of it. But cool-headed behavior is hard to express with an image."



By Aris Messinis


Pensioners try to enter a national Bank branch, as Greece reopened banks for pensioners who do not use cash cards for ATM, to allow them to withdraw their pension with a limit of 120 euros, in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

Pensioners try to enter a national bank branch in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)


ATHENS, July 2, 2015 – We knew there would be ugly scenes, as Greece said it was opening its beleaguered banks for three days to allow elderly people to draw cash. People shoving, yelling in anger at hapless bank employees. In six long years of crisis, we have seen images like this any number of times. It’s sad. But it’s the reality and your job is to record it.

I was outside the headquarters of the Greek national bank at 6:30 am yesterday morning. At 7 am – two hours before it opened – there were already 100 people there. Over the time I was there I saw around 300. Two photographer colleagues were posted at other branches to help cover the story, as thousands of pensioners besieged the nation’s banks.


A man gestures as pensioners queue outside a national Bank branch, to cash out up to 120 euros in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


By no means everyone was behaving badly – some were just standing in line. But you see all sorts of nasty behavior – small details that are not easy to capture in a photograph. I saw an old lady beating the hand of old man to snatch his numbered ticket. It happened in a flash, too fast for me to shoot.

They could just wait quietly to get inside. But no, instead they jump at the bank employee to grab a ticket – so they can save themselves 20 minutes of queueing. I was shouted at and shoved by pensioners as I worked.


The manager of a national Bank branch delivers priority numbers to elderly customers, as Greece reopened banks to allow them to withdraw their pension with a limit of 120 euros, in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)


Of course, the elderly are more frightened in a crisis situation like this. Some really need the cash.

But you get the sense that others – like the ones who emptied the nation’s cash machines in a panic this week– are simply afraid of losing what they have. They no longer trust the banks and feel safer with money in their pocket.


Pensioners queue outside a national Bank branch, as banks only opened for the retired to allow them to cash up to 120 euros in Athens on July 1, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

(AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


To my mind, this is not about anger. It’s about how you control yourself and how fair you are with the person next to you. Everyone here is angry, I am angry with the situation. But I can still wait in the queue or give my place to someone who needs it more.

We Greeks are very open-hearted, we express ourselves loudly. And often behave in strange ways. In difficult situations like this you see civilized behavior disappearing.

I’ve seen the same many times before, for instance when there are food deliveries held out of solidarity. People - often elderly people - jumping queues, jostling to grab a few potatoes.


Pensioners queue outside a national Bank branch, as Greece reopened banks for pensioners who do not use cash cards for ATM, to allow them to withdraw their pension with a limit of 120 euros, in Athens on July 1, 2015 ( AFP PHOTO / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

(AFP Photo / Angelos Tzortzinis)


But you can also be sure that if things started getting dangerous, if there was an accident, people would say ‘Woah’ and calm down. Unlike other countries where I have seen people ready to kill for something they want.

Things have been very bad in Greece for six years. We are talking about hundreds, maybe thousands of suicides. People have suffered a lot, and not just these past few days because of the banks and the capital control measures taken by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.


A man walks past a wall bearing graffitti concerning Greece's referendum on the latest offer of a debt deal by the country's EU-IMF creditors in Athens on June 28, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

A man walks past a wall bearing graffitti concerning the Greek referendum a debt deal with its EU-IMF creditors in Athens on June 28, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


Some people are very scared. Others stay calm because they reason there is little more that can go wrong. No need to stand in a queue to get 60 euros. I’d say it is about half and half.

We don’t know how things are going to go in Sunday’s referendum, but it does feel dangerous to have a country divided in the middle like this.

This referendum started out as a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to a specific bailout plan. But then it was recast in Brussels as a question on remaining in the eurozone. And now everybody is trying to play his own game.


Protesters in front of the Greek parliament in Athens on June 29, 2015.  (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

Protesters in front of the Greek parliament in Athens on June 29, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


We have shot the big ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ rallies in recent days, but to be honest these demos are not really pro- or anti-European – they are always led by political camps.

The ‘No’ camp are more left-leaning, they don’t want to leave the EU but most desperately want a different kind of Europe, with less austerity, and job programmes to create a brighter future for the younger generation. The majority of the ‘Yes’ camp – in my experience – are people who are a little better off, and therefore feel they have something to lose. These tend be more right-wing.


A pro-European Union protester participates in a demonstration in front of the parliament in Athens on June 30, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

A pro-European Union demonstrator in front of the parliament in Athens on June 30, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


The Greek media are not always fair – they are part of the political system and all media takes sides in their coverage. As a result, journalists are not welcome here. It’s very difficult to cover this story without facing trouble.

I have spoken to many, many people on the street since this crisis began. You talk to people – you get attacked by people too, as happened to me yesterday. Images like this are very powerful, and make you think they are the whole story. In truth they are only part of it.

The problem with our job is that it is very hard to show the other side of the story. There is another part of the Greek population that still lead normal lives, as they did before the rise of Syriza. But cool-headed behavior is hard to express with an image.


A woman stands in front of a graffiti bearing the number zero on a euro coin in central Athens on June 27, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

Graffiti in central Athens on June 27, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


Over the past years, I have often used graffiti on the walls of Athens to illustrate the twists and turns in Greece’s debt crisis.

Graffiti is part of our life here. Just as art is part of our history. It makes this concrete city more beautiful – and we need that beauty. An image is there every day to walk past and reflect upon, and it can often express the way of thinking of the silent majority.

Images like this are a form of political expression. Sometime they are much more interesting – and make more sense than pictures of people shouting.

Aris Messinis is an AFP photographer based in Athens. Click to follow him on Twitter. This post was written with AFP Correspondent's editor Emma Charlton.


A man walks past a wall bearing graffitti concerning Greece's possible exit from the Euro in Athens on June 28, 2015 (AFP PHOTO / ARIS MESSINIS)

Graffitti referring to Greece's possible exit from the euro in Athens on June 28, 2015 (AFP Photo / Aris Messinis)


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